*Originally published in Chinese on United Daily News on December 25, 2022
Reporter: Peng Hui Ming
On December 25, 2022, Sunday, the United Daily News introduced a series called “Invisible Champions”, presenting inspiring stories with founders of the most promising small and medium-sized companies in Taiwan. Although they are not well-known yet, these companies are inching their way to the top, and one day may become the next TSMC.
When staying at the hotel, guests often ask for a service by calling the front desk or by pushing the designated button for their desired department. Now, thanks to advances in voice AI technology, they can have an intelligent assistant to help them in the room. Aiello, a Taiwanese start-up that specializes in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and voice AI technology, was founded in 2019. Aiello’s main product, Aiello Voice Assistant (AVA), is an AI concierge that is now deployed in over 8,000 hotel rooms in Taiwan and across Asia. This in-room AI assistant has been adopted by hotels in Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia, and Aiello is quickly expanding to other markets. From high-end five-star hotels to business hotels, guests are now offered round-the-clock hotel assistance at their fingertips.
The CEO of Aiello, Vic Shen, has extensive working experience in the technology industry, ranging from semiconductor chips to hardware products. His experience at Google, where he worked in multiple departments, including TVs, home, and wireless networks, plays a major role in his entrepreneurial journey. He was the brains behind the development of the Google Nest series of smart speaker products, and then subsequently transferred to the voice assistant team, where he picked up in-depth expertise with NLP technology.
Most NLP and voice assistant technology is being developed by Amazon, Google, Apple, and Meta. Compared to the tech giants, smaller size tech companies can afford to narrow their focus to a specific use case, such as hospitality, to provide much better, specialized service.
In the past, NLP technology was mainly based on keywords, and the outcome was not good enough for commercial use. But as the AI technology is advancing, the capabilities along with additional use cases of NLP are growing with it. Today, even though NLP technology is still considered a highly demanding investment in terms of resources and development, we are seeing more and more business applications using large open-source language models like BERT or GPT3.
The hotel industry took a hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and is now undergoing a major transformation. The team behind AVA believes that hotel AI can be of major help to recover the accommodation industry and propel hotel businesses forward.
Hotel industry is driven by human interactions, and because hotels are already gathering and analyzing large volumes of conversations every day, as Vic pointed out, NLP technology has numerous applications in this field that can dramatically improve the efficiency of hotel teams and the overall guest experience.
Vic and his team have developed a technology named Aiello NLU (Natural Language Understanding) which analyzes user conversations and allows for more natural human-machine interactions in the service industry.
This technology can be used to uncover customer needs, handle large volumes of interactions, level up user experience and improve business efficiency from the ground up. AVA, a voice assistant powered by Aiello NLU, has been built with the purpose of helping the hotel industry and it is gradually becoming a standard equipment in four-star and above hotels in Taiwan and the number of contracted rooms is expected to grow by 2.5 times compared to last year.
Since the beginning, AVA was able to save hotels on average 30% of front desk workload by handling multiple tasks. AVA also helps the marketing team to increase the exposure of the hotel on social media by ten times and brings more guests to join the hotel’s loyalty program. Additionally, AVA can be used to collect aggregated guests’ data and integrate it into the hotel’s customer management system.
As the world begins to lift restrictions and people learn to live with the pandemic, Aiello sees huge opportunities in the tourism and hospitality industry in Thailand and Japan. The company has successfully entered multiple international hotels in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore with an aim to capture more than 30% of the market share for four-star and above hotels in Southeast and Northeast Asia in the next five years.
Aiello currently processes 1 million Chinese, English, and Japanese voice and text data per month constantly improving its AI model. The company has recently developed an NLP SaaS collaborative platform for businesses, with the objective to introduce multi-intent semantic understanding technology to other industries, helping companies accelerate digital transformation and optimize business operations.
“I knew that if I don’t start a business, I will never be satisfied.”
The founder and CEO of Aiello, Vic Shen, has had a successful career thus far. Even though his resume boasts impressive experience at companies such as Qualcomm, Google, and NXP, he still wanted to start his own business.
A friend once told him, “Starting a business may be risky, but failing won’t ruin your life. So why not give it a try?”
Five years ago, when he was 40 years old, the opportunity came up, and he dove headfirst into starting his own company. He had a lot of work experience, but little experience as an entrepreneur. Vic admitted that in the first year, his business almost failed. In the early stages, he mainly relied on his own resources, as well as funds from friends and family, about US$330k. His business team had technical expertise, but it was a startup without a financial director. He used the funds to purchase a very good voice software engine and focused on developing the product.
At the end of 2019, having just been established for one year, the first batch of small-scale production speakers were about to hit the market. However, at this time, the funding that was originally promised did not arrive and the company was running out of resources.
Everyone in the team was passionate and refused to give up even though they hadn’t been paid for two months. Vic went to the bank to borrow a few million more to pay for the shipment. Luckily, soon after, Aiello’s technology and products attracted another angel investor, and at the last moment they received the “lifesaving money”. At the beginning of 2020, the funds had arrived and that is how the Aiello team overcame the biggest crisis.
Vic said that when he first started his business, he pushed himself hard and worked at a fast pace, but also had to be careful and take breaks to maintain a steady rhythm. He initially thought that he would achieve success quickly. During the first three years, he worked every day as if it was his last, staying up late and thinking about strategies for progression. He eventually realized that entrepreneurship is a long-term venture that cannot be sustained with such intense effort every day.
Vic said that for a new startup in Taiwan to be successful, it takes a decade of hard work. Two years after its establishment, the company began to see revenue and was able to confirm that its business direction was correct.
His advice to new entrepreneurs: “Entrepreneurship requires lots of effort and determination, but it doesn’t mean that you will see immediate results. Don’t push yourself to the point that you can’t live a normal life, because stress will eventually break you down.”
AI startup Aiello recently completed a Pre A+ round of funding, raising US$5.8 million (approximately NT$180 million) with investment led by JAFCO Asia and Wistron. Original investor Cornerstone Ventures also participated in the round. John Lin, Managing Director of JAFCO Taiwan Capital, stated that Aiello aligns with JAFCO Asia’s main investment criteria by having a plan to expand overseas and enter international markets. It considers Aiello as one of the few AI companies in Asia with a scalable business model that effectively addresses industry pain points.
In the post-pandemic era, industries have to cope with labor shortages, and it is expected that the demand for AI will continuously increase. In order to overcome staffing issues, the hotel industry must allocate resources with precision and with the recovering tourism trend, the implementation of intelligent technology is key to handling these pressing issues and Aiello will play an important role in meeting this demand.
JAFCO Asia has recently invested in fields such as cybersecurity, energy, and AI in Taiwan. John Lin stated that during investments, they also join the board of directors of startups, allowing entrepreneurs to more efficiently achieve their business goals. He adds that it depends on the startup’s own technology to capture the market, and that JAFCO is optimistic about Aiello’s ability to expand worldwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to new work norms such as hybrid working and online meetings, resulting in a huge accumulation of voice data that needs to be analyzed and deconstructed in the most efficient way to bring value to companies. Aiello is currently designing a second product, an “AI voice collaboration platform” that focuses on various voice data understanding and recognition scenarios to capture opportunities.
Vic stated that the amount of online speech or video is growing incredibly fast, with these unstructured data making up more than 90% of all available data and often containing the most valuable information for users. Today, translation tools are mostly literal, however we can see that understanding the meaning and emotions behind the text quickly and in a more efficient way is becoming an increasingly important capability for online tools.
Aiello’s new voice intelligence collaboration platform focuses on quickly transcribing multiple audio files into text and ultimately rewriting them into precise summaries. This product is currently in the internal testing stage, and is targeting international markets, supporting Chinese, English, and Japanese languages. Users will be able to directly search for keywords, edit, add comments, make revisions and share with other teammates.
Vic and his team are now focusing on deepening their expertise in integrating voice AI technology into vertical industries. “AVA has already become a leading force in adopting voice AI technologies in the hotel industry, but the entire field of natural language processing and speech understanding is advancing at great speed. Many startups in the United States have already begun to compete for the market for voice collaboration, so we must keep improving our technology.”
Aiello’s new product is a pure software B2B SaaS platform, which initially targets enterprise customers. By analyzing online meetings through AI, this platform boosts team collaboration and enables managers to uncover the skills that drive performance and improve conversion rate of their teams. Vic believes that this product can save up to 80% of company time spent in endless meetings and generate efficiency within corporate teams.
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