Why Kolkata-based voice assistant startup Mihup feels offline is the way to go to protect privacy

Speech recognition startup Mihup, which offers an AI-enabled speech recognition platform for vernacular languages, pivoted from B2C to B2B for voice-based offline services in 2017.

In the digital world, concerns about privacy and personal data being vulnerable to attacks and threats abound. But Kolkata-based Mihup, which offers an AI-enabled speech recognition platform for vernacular languages, believes that offline is the key to protecting privacy.

The founders agree that India seems to be at greater risk compared to the rest of the world. According to the World Economic Forum's 14th edition of Global Risks Report 2019, India saw the most data breaches in 2018, compared to any other country. 

“To tackle the issue of privacy, offline is the solution. And that’s why we have stuck to providing offline solutions from the very start. Right from our B2C days to our pivot to B2B,” says Mihup Co-founder Sandipan Mandal.

Founded in 2016 by Biplab Chakraborty, Sandipan Mandal, Tapan Barman, and former JustDial CTO Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Mihup is powered by intelligent voice interfaces for any device or application. The company says it can deliver “human-like understanding of naturally spoken queries for large, complex content domains, offline”.

Mihup Co-founders (L-R) Biplab Chakraborty, Sandipan Mandal, Tapan Barman, and Sandipan Chattopadhyay,

How it started

Mihup, short for ‘May I help you please’, started as an offline platform, where one could ask questions (via SMS) and get an instant answer. “We would get three lakh hits a month. People could ask questions on any subject - travel, shopping, price comparison, general knowledge, astrology, jokes. It was like an internet search but in offline mode,” Sandipan (M) says. 

The platform had an in-app messenger that would send out the query through SMS and an algorithm-based AI search would provide the answers. It also had a translation engine.

While other AI startups like Niki.ai and Haptic also had text chatbots, Mihup realised nobody was offering voice-based offline services. “We realised nobody was submitting their query in their language but instead typing it (native language) out in English script. That’s why we decided to make it voice-based.  We made a small speech recognition software with 5,000 vocabulary inputs and showed it to Accel partners. They funded the concept,” Sandipan (M) says.

Accel Partners took a 20 percent stake in Mihup and invested Rs 45 crore as seed capital in 2016.

In 2017, the company decided to pivot from B2C to B2B. “We wanted to build a tech-based product and not just a tech-based service. We were focused on the back end from Day 1 and not so much interested in UI/UX; we were totally tech obsessed. That is why we decided to pivot,” Biplab says. 

The B2B shift opened up domains such as car control, media, entertainment, and customer call analysis.

Bigger players to go ‘offline’?

Sandipan (M) believes offline is the way forward, and all the bigger players such as Amazon with Alexa, Apple with Siri, and Google with its Assistant will have to follow suit. In fact, earlier this summer, Google launched a new voice recognition system that works instantly and offline. The system, however, only works with American English and on Gboard, Google’s keyboard app, and on Pixels.

Speaking on the competition, Biplab says US-based Nuance is the only other company in the domain right now. Does the fact that giants like Google are testing the waters make the company nervous? Biplab says, “Competition will always be a factor. You can’t let it bog you down. Despite Orkut being there, Facebook still came and look where it is today.”

Sandipan chimes in and highlights that Mihup may, in fact, may have an advantage over the tech giants. “We have an advantage over the likes of Google because what sets us apart is our domain knowledge of Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English). We can customise for the client, which Google and other big players won't do,” he says.

The startup says it runs deep research on accents and dialects across languages, and currently works with English, Hindi, Bengali, Hinglish, and Benglish (mix of Bengali and English).

“While Mihup is mainly focused on providing offline solutions, we also offer on-demand open domain general purpose online API services as well as on-premise deployment for clients,” Sandipan says.

Recruitment and fundraising

Mihup currently works with German speakers company Harman Kardon, Bengaluru-based Sensy TV (which has a tie-up with Blaupunkt), the BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) sector, the automotive sector through OEMs and carmakers, and the BPO sector.

The Mihup team celebrating the startup's fourth birthday

The company currently has a staff strength of around 35 and is looking to double that number by December. The staff is an equal mix of linguists and techies. It also has fundraising plans for next year. 

“The funds will be used to add more Indian languages to our platform,” Sandipan says, adding that they also want to extend their presence overseas.