ELSA provides 24/7 personal English AI tutor for millions of learners over world

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Michael Ngo, ELSA GM SEA & Taiwan; Vu Van, CEO; Will Polese, VP of revenue

As the global lingua franca, English communication skills are crucial for anyone looking to succeed in academics and the workplace.

However, improving English proficiency typically requires a lot of effort for non-native speakers, especially in listening and speaking. Immersing in an all-English environment and having a 24/7 personal tutor who converses exclusively in English would be immensely beneficial for any learner, but not everyone can afford it, finding the right teacher is another challenge.

This was also the challenge faced by Vu Van, who was born and raised in Vietnam. She initially thought her English level was good enough, and she got many opportunities in the local job market to work for international companies because of her language proficiency. It was not until Vu went to study at Stanford University, where she pursued an MBA and a Master's in Education that she realized her non-native accent prevented her from freely expressing herself and communicating smoothly with professors and classmates.

The situation left her feeling frustrated so she started to look for a speech coach to improve her pronunciation. It turned out extremely expensive, the hourly rate could be as high as $200. All these became the driving force behind her founding ELSA eight years ago.

Aimed to create an affordable personal English tutor available 24/7, Vu collaborated with a speech technologist, Dr. Xavier Anguera, to form a company and officially launched ELSA Speak in 2016. According to Michael Ngo, ELSA's General Manager of SEA Cluster and Taiwan, leveraging AI technologies and a self-built large database, the ELSA Speak smartphone app is not only a personal English tutor right in learners' pockets, but also a unique learning tool that can pinpoint pronunciation mistakes in every sound of a word and sentence, even at conversation level, then provide real-time, accurate feedback to guide users on how to improve.

8 years ago, AI was not such a hot topic as today, "there were existing models that were available, but none of them were good enough for what we want," Ngo said. At the time, AI models could only conduct certain conversations but were unable to serve as learning tools. So the ELSA team built their own AI model and introduced generative AI technology to their solutions, to enable a unique personalized English learning tool.

"Recently, we've successfully developed & released two more powerful AI tools that bring users' English to the next level. One is ELSA AI, which lets users practice real-world roleplay conversations with AI and Speech Analyzer, which provides detailed feedback for any free-formed speeches." As Ngo mentioned, these tools are not only capable of engaging in ongoing conversations with users without limitation of time and location, help to correct pronunciation and grammar, but also simulate specific scenarios, such as job interviews and business conversations, allowing users to practice before entering the actual events, enhancing their confidence.

ELSA's uniqueness and advantages have gained favor from numerous investors, including leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Gradient Ventures, an outstanding venture fund specializing in investing in the AI of Google is also one of them. So far ELSA has successfully raised $50 million in capital and got over 50 million downloads globally, their subscribers across more than 195 countries worldwide.

Since its launch, ELSA has also won many prestigious awards and recognitions, including "Best Digital Learning App" by Reimagine Education, winner of SXSWEdu Launch Competition, the leading education technology exhibition in the US, Top 5 Artificial Intelligence Applications by Research Snipers, and a world-changing AI product mentioned by Forbes. Recently, ELSA has secured Series C funding, including the participation of UniPresident Taiwan. ELSA will use the funding "to support, grow the platform, and expand our global offering by increasing our presence further in Taiwan with our new investors," Vu said.

With its semiconductor and electronics industry supply chain, Taiwan plays an increasingly significant role in the global market. More and more international companies have come for investment, increasing the need for local employees with bilingual skills. Taiwanese companies also need many experts with a variety of abilities, including English and international mobility, to adapt to global supply chain deployment. ELSA recognizes the growth potential of the Taiwan market and considers it one of the key focuses for future operations.

"And we see Taiwan has set a goal of becoming bilingual in Chinese and English by 2030. To achieve that goal, the Taiwanese government also urged educators and learners to leverage technology and AI for people to practice English with more effective, personalized, and engaging methodologies." Ngo added that, in addition to subscription service for individual users, collaborating with schools and businesses to provide English training solutions has always been one of the business models that ELSA values greatly.

Ngo recalls how a blue-collar worker who worked in a factory in Vietnam improved his English proficiency significantly within six months with ELSA's tools and got the opportunity to study abroad. After completing his studies and returning to Vietnam, he obtained higher-level job opportunities and pay. ELSA has also helped a stay-at-home mother who relocated to the United States with her husband to master English language skills and the ability to run her small businesses to contribute to their households financially. These success stories motivate ELSA to continue improving and providing subscribers with a better user experience.

As a successful startup, ELSA also shared its tips for operating a business with other entrepreneurs. " First, start with the big problem, because if the problem you try to solve is too small or too niche, you won't be able to scale up," Ngo said. Second, stay agile, "As technology advances rapidly, it's crucial to constantly assess the market's response to your products and services, swiftly determine the necessary changes and what's your next step." Last but not least, "Always focus on the end user's experience. Building a cool product is good, but if nobody uses it or has no value, it's probably not going to be a viable business."

(Editor's note: The original article was published in TTA Magazine Issue 14. Read more startup stories in TTA Magazines.)

ELSA English AI tutor

ELSA English AI tutor