OpenAI-backed language learning app Speak raises $16M to expand to the US

Speak, an English language learning platform backed by OpenAI’s startup investment fund, the OpenAI Startup Fund, today announced that it raised $16 million in a Series B-2 funding round led by angel investor Lachy Groom.

The co-founders of Dropbox, Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, also participated in Speak’s tranche, which brings the startup’s total raised to $63 million. CEO Connor Zwick says that it’ll be used to support Speak’s launch in more markets, including in the U.S. by the end of the year. (Speak is currently live in around 20 countries including Japan, Taiwan, Germany, France, Brazil and Mexico.)

“It’s been incredible to see that the learning experience we spent years honing in a single market, South Korea, has proven to resonate with almost no modifications needed in markets and cultures across the globe,” Zwick said in a press release. “Looking ahead, we plan on bringing our AI-powered tutor to most major markets around the world by the end of this year, and are gearing up for a launch in the U.S., offering English speakers the ability to learn other languages.”

Speak was founded in 2016 by Zwick and Andrew Hsu. Zwick came from edtech — he sold his first startup, the flashcard app Flashcards+, to Chegg in 2013 — while Hsu has a background in neuroscience.

Zwick and Hsu met through The Thiel Fellowship originally. Prior to starting Speak, the pair spent a year studying and researching machine learning and developing accent detection algorithms using YouTube videos as training data.

Speak

Image Credits: Speak

With Speak’s app for Android and iOS, users can practice conversing in English through a collection of interactive speaking experiences. The app can hold open-ended conversations guided by an “AI tutor” on a range of topics while giving feedback on things like pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

The premise might sound like Duolingo and some of the other AI-driven language learning apps out there, such as Yanadoo, ELSA and Loora. But Speak has managed to hold its own despite the competition, becoming one of the top-downloaded education apps in South Korea, where it first launched, with well over 100,000 subscribers.

Speak claims that it’s helped nearly 6% of Korea’s population — ~3 million people — learn English.

After the investment from OpenAI, which gave Speak not only financing but early access to OpenAI systems and Azure resources from Microsoft, OpenAI’s close collaborator, Speak began tapping OpenAI’s AI technology for new capabilities and features.

In March, Speak upgraded its AI Tutor with OpenAI’s GPT-4 text-generating model, which Zwick said enabled “highly personalized and contextual” feedback for learners. “GPT-4 is able to generate text with a higher degree of accuracy and coherence, which allows for more natural, instructive interactions for learners,” Zwick wrote in a blog post. “This in turn translates to increased user engagement and better learning outcomes.”

Also in March, Speak adopted OpenAI’s Whisper API for multilingual speech recognition and collaborated with OpenAI on new plugins for ChatGPT, OpenAI’s viral AI chatbot. Speak’s plug-in enables ChatGPT users to access a version of the startup’s language tutoring experience through ChatGPT and marked Speak’s first foray into teaching beyond English.

Speak isn’t the only language-tutoring app that’s been afforded early access to OpenAI tech — Duolingo was a launch partner for GPT-4. But according to Groom, Speak’s real differentiator is its commitment to low-cost language education.

“Education will continue to be a sector most profoundly transformed by AI,” Groom said in a statement. “Speak’s mission and approach to create a human-level, AI-powered tutor gives learners around the world access to conversational practice without paying a premium for a live tutor on the other end.”

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