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Whether it be a request to Alexa for a weather report in the morning or for Siri to help track down a recipe, millions of people use voice-control technologies to navigate their daily lives. A report by eMarketer has estimated that this year, 111.8 million people in the US will use a voice assistant at least monthly, while UK-based Juniper Research has forecasted that 8 billion digital voice assistants will be in use globally by 2023. Speech is rapidly replacing screen tapping as the preferred way to communicate with devices.

A Cornell Tech alumni startup has developed a conversational AI platform called Airbud that lets organizations easily add natural, two-way conversational capabilities to their websites, apps, and other digital channels. The plug-and-play solution takes a new approach to online conversations.

Airbud was incorporated in June 2018. Today it has an 11-strong team working across R&D, sales, marketing, and product in the US and Israel. The team has recently secured $4 million in seed money investments led by Hanaco Ventures with participation from Spider Capital and ERA

Israel Krush, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA ’18 and Airbud co-founder and CEO, came to New York City to build his business and entrepreneurial skills following a 12-year technology career with the Israeli Defense Forces, Intel, and a series of startups. At Cornell Tech, he met co-founder, Rom Cohen, Master of Engineering in Computer Science ’18. 

Recognizing a rise in the popularity of voice assistants, Krush and Cohen teamed up in Startup Studio and began researching the voice space. 

Airbud co-founders from left to right: Rom Cohen, Master of Engineering in Computer Science ’18, Israel Krush, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA ’18, and Uri Valevski.

Tech giants are encouraging consumers to use smart speakers, said Krush, but many use cases, such as playing a song or setting an alarm, are too simplistic. “We thought about more complex scenarios and looked at verticals where we feel that there is friction in terms of finding information,” Krush said.

The pair focused on websites that users visit out of necessity rather than enjoyment or entertainment, such as those in the healthcare sector. “You’re not visiting a hospital website for fun, you do it because you need to find a physician or make an appointment.” People can get lost looking for information, he said, and often end up having to call a live representative. 

Airbud decided to simplify this interaction, “You should be able to find a physician by simply typing or saying, ‘I’m looking for a cardiologist who speaks Spanish on the Upper East Side,’” said Krush.

A New Approach to Chat

Krush and Cohen found that existing chatbots and voice assistant solutions tend to be based on predefined conversational flows, i.e. if the user says X, reply with Y. This means organizations need to anticipate the questions a person might ask. Airbud simplifies this process with two major innovations, first by using existing data, scraped from the organization’s website, to create a comprehensive knowledge graph. “Technologically speaking, we are able to deploy an AI assistant without any training data,” said Krush. “If the information is on the website, the user will get an answer from us.” 

The second takes an approach that is linguistics-based, rather than machine-learning orientated. This means that when a user asks Airbud a question, their natural speech is parsed and broken down, said Krush. “Once we parse the sentence and understand the different components, we are able to traverse the knowledge graph, retrieve the relevant information and ask follow-up questions”.

Further actions, such as booking appointments, can then be carried out.

Beyond Healthcare 

In June 2018, Airbud, now joined by third co-founder Uri Valevski, a Natural Language Understanding expert with experience on the Google Search and Duplex teams⁠, was accepted into Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA). ERA made an initial investment of  $100,000 and the team worked out of Cornell Tech’s on-campus co-working space. The combined support allowed the team to develop their Proof-of-Concept (POC) and work on a pilot with Weill Cornell Medicine. The pilot demonstrated how Airbud could be successfully deployed on a website containing data on over 1,500 physicians.

The $4 million funding injection will allow the team to deploy Airbud on other platforms, such as Alexa devices and Facebook Messenger, and to build design partnerships in new verticals — perhaps travel, finance, or education, said Krush. “We’re vertical agnostic. In each information-heavy use case, where people need to be on a website versus want to be on a website — that’s our ideal landing spot, and that’s where you’ll find us.”