The 2011 Speech Luminaries

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We’re all familiar with the personal trainer’s mantra “no pain, no gain.” The idea that growth is possible only when you push yourself beyond your comfort zone applies to our four Luminaries. Knowing that standing still leads to contraction, these leaders have made bold moves to anticipate the direction of the industry. One has completed a dizzying 44 acquisitions in about a decade, with a recent deal fortifying his company’s presence in speech security. Another has pushed user interfaces based on speech, touch, and gesture to satisfy consumers’ appetite for connected devices. A third has spearheaded standards developments to unify disparate efforts. And our fourth winner, bowing to the smartphones craze, has supported customer empowerment by creating a mobile division. Four visionaries, four stories.

Empire Building
Paul Ricci
Chairman and CEO, Nuance Communications

When rumors of an Apple deal to purchase Nuance Communications surfaced in early May, many assumed it would happen because Steve Jobs tends to get what he wants. However, Jobs’ counterpart at Nuance, Chairman and CEO Paul Ricci, who has initiated many acquisitions of his own, is used to getting what he wants, too. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t reach an agreement and the deal didn’t materialize.

Had the deal gone through, Apple would have acquired a company that has made 44 acquisitions since Ricci joined Nuance in 2000. Most of Nuance’s deals have involved a classic build-it-or-buy-it situation, and in most cases, the buy-it option has won out. (At press time, Nuance had just announced it acquired SVOX, a provider of voice solutions for in-car systems.)

Case in point, just as 2010 was ending, Nuance acquired PerSay, a provider of voice biometrics solutions, for an undisclosed sum. What makes the PerSay deal unique, however, is that it would turn Nuance—a leader in speech recognition and speech synthesis—into a formidable force in an area where it had only a marginal presence: speech security. The acquisition brought to Nuance one of the strongest providers of voice authentication solutions. In addition, the deal expanded Nuance’s customer base in voice biometrics to include some of the largest-known customer-facing authentication applications in the world.

“There is strong growth and interest [in biometrics],” Chuck Buffum, vice president of authentication solutions at Nuance, said at the time of the PerSay deal. “It’s finally emerging. We think we’ve positioned Nuance to have all the right products and solutions around the world now and to maximize and leverage that growth.”

To be sure, Ricci, an economist by training, is not done building his speech empire. He started it in 2001, when he swooped in to buy the troubled Lernout & Hauspie, which went bankrupt after a huge accounting scandal, for $39 million.

As for Apple, its interest in Nuance remains. With Apple set to unveil iOS5, the latest version of its mobile platform, reports suggest Apple would be willing to strike a licensing deal with Nuance to bring voice recognition and synthesis to Apple’s mobile devices. Though Apple likely could develop the technology on its own, it would not be completed in time for the iOS5 release this year. Ricci then just might have Apple where he wants it, rather than the other way around.
—Leonard Klie


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