Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.
The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform that its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty-party software like Zoom, Webex, etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)
Interactio's interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)
It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting -- and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform -- or else it will provide training to a customer's interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.
At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting "strong relations with interpretation agencies" -- claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.
It offers its customers interpretation in any language -- and in an unlimited number of languages per event. Last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.
Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multilingual online meetings -- as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.
"When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us," a spokeswoman told us.
"This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms -- by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable."
"Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we complement it by offering professional interpretation solutions," she added.
A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out -- and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are a bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it's had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)
While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it's seen during the remote work boom.
Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI -- with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have "the best working conditions from their chosen place of work").
It will also be spending to expand its client base -- and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. ("Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g., European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation," it told us.)
The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.
While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on-premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology -- which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.
Google, for example, offers a real-time translator mode that's accessible to users of its smartphone platform via the Google voice assistant AI. Hardware startups are also trying to target real-time translation. The dream of a real-life AI-powered "Babel Fish" remains strong.
Nonetheless, such efforts aren't well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale -- where having a centralized delivery service that's also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues that may arise looks essential.
While machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.
"AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality," says Interactio when we ask about this. "Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.
"We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine."