The Flanders Language Valley Fund has made an investment of 3 million dollars in the Sequoia Software Corporation, an American designer and support provider in leading-edge solutions for health care transaction services. The Flanders Language Valley (FLV) initiative has been set up by Lernout & Hauspie, the world leader in speech technology, to concentrate industrial manufacturers, specialized in speech recognition systems and all relating technologies in one giant business park near the Flemish town of Ieper. Sequoia Software, founded in 1982, will open a new division in FLV for expansion of its activities within Europe. The FLV Fund has acquired 13,95% of the Sequoia shares, in order to forge a strategic partnership with Lernout & Hauspie to further develop advanced speech products for the medical sector.
Lernout & Hauspie was founded in 1987, a time in which there were no hardware, no investment funding, no markets available for speech technology. Until 1994, the company continuously balanced on the verge of ruin. It were the small merchants of Ieper who rescued the company from final bankruptcy through the sharing of their belief in the form of nearly 20 million dollars in Lernout & Hauspie. This allowed the partners to enter the stock market in 1995. Since then, the speech and language technologist has forged its growing success in the fires of numerous business acquisitions as well as in the sales of over 350 licences to major companies. In 1993, AT&T decided to partner with L&H and in 1997, Microsoft acquired an 8% interest in the Flemish company. The next step formed the acquisition of GMS, an expert in automatic translation based on the know how of Siemens.
IBM and Dragon are L&H's two major competitors in the speech recognition market but the Flemish company is the only one to house all the necessary technologies. The knowledge is based on four different components: speech recognition, text to speech, speech compression and translation. All these concepts are being implemented in four divisions, namely basic technology, dictation, machine translation, and human translation. The acquisition of Kurzweil has led to the development of Voice Xpress, a dictation software programme, frequently used in health care environments to dictate medical reports. In the United States, doctors can be prosecuted if an error occurs in the patient record. For that matter, physicians are offered a discount on their insurance premium if they are willing to invest in dictation software to prevent mistakes in reporting.
In turn, the Voice Xpress Pro package has been designed for both e-mail and Powerpoint applications. The automatic translation software, which will be issued under the commercial brandname ITranslator, principally has been conceived for real time Internet documents' translation in large companies. In 1999, the revolutionary Real Voice will be ready to make digital computer speech sound like a real human voice. All of the L&H technology is platform independent. Currently, software is available in 15 languages but this will soon amount to 35. This is an amazing result if one considers the effort it takes to make the computer understand that "Die Frucht fliegt wie eine Banane" has not quite the same meaning as "Fruit flies like a banana".
L&H has 32 locations all over the world and 60% of the employees are native speakers of foreign languages. In 1997, the company reached a turnover of nearly $100 million and made a profit of $20 million, whereas Microsoft recently has invested 3 million dollars in the Flanders Language Valley. Despite the hesitating start, the future looks bright for Lernout & Hauspie. The buy-out of experts and technology at the Belgian universities in the earlier years finally seems to pay off in salable products for the medical, telecommunications, automotive, consumer electronics, computer and multimedia markets. Research now is focusing on camera-equipped PCs, that can read lips, as well as on biometric verification via both speech and visual recognition on smartcards and chips while the nine month design of software packages for new languages still goes on.
In March 1999, 17 companies will start their activities in FLV and by the end of that year, their number will have risen to about 50. Lernout & Hauspie have kept their promise to largely award the region of Ieper for its investment in a project, which seemed to be an impossible dream at the time. You can find more news on the subject in the VMW article Electronic patient records through speech recognition.