Photograph by Hamin Lee




Employees: 10 | Age: 24

Scarcely two weeks into a new job as a research assistant in the University of Toronto's computer science department, Alexander Levy took a big risk. A stroke survivor visited the department's lab, seeking someone to help him develop better speech-assistance technology. Since Levy's boss was out of town and no one else on staff had time to take on the challenge, the green recruit shelved his to-do list and gave the project a shot. "I figured I could just make a prototype for him and see how it worked," Levy recalls.

The prototype worked. So well, in fact, that when Levy's boss caught wind of what his newest hire had been up to, he ordered his staff to drop their projects and focus on Levy's nascent creation. And so was born the technology that is now poised to activate a latent industry worth billions.

That Levy is a doer is just one reason why he is the Entrepreneur of the Year among the first annual FuEL Award winners. The 24-year-old is also a problemsolver by nature, with a knack for both leadership and for knowing how to be in the right place at the right time. Levy has developed game-changing technology, and now, through Toronto-based MyVoice Inc., is selling it to an underserved market that's ripe for disruption.

Levy's prototype evolved into the MyVoice mobile application, which launched last spring. The app, which runs on Apple and Android smartphones and tablet computers, helps the deaf and people with speech disorders, such as stroke survivors and those with autism, converse audibly.

In essence, the app speaks for its users. It comes pre-populated with common words and phrases; with a few taps of a screen, the device enunciates a desired sentence. If you click a folder entitled "I want," you'll be given a choice of logical options, such as "one ticket" or "a coffee." If your Starbucks fave is a non-fat half-caf latte, you can populate the app with that command. And when you enter your local café, the GPS capabilities in your device will recognize your location and pull up the relevant cue.

Most of the speech-assistance tools on the market run on cumbersome proprietary hardware; some require a shoulder strap. The software for these tools tends to be slow, causing delays in conversations. And the hardware is prohibitively expensive, often costing upward of US$10,000 each.

"They're very difficult to maintain, not fluid at all and socially ostracizing," says Levy. For these reasons, he adds, just 7% of the 3.5 million North Americans with a speech disability choose to use an electronic communications aid.

Levy's app turns ubiquitous mobile devices into customizable speech-assistance tools for the cost of a smartphone or tablet; the basic app is free. (A premium version with personalization features costs $25 to $30 per month.)

When Levy first developed the app, he was simply trying to build a better mousetrap; he didn't seriously consider commercializing it until people at research conferences started asking where they could buy it. "About the fourth or fifth time this happened, I started to think there might be a real business possibility," he says.

So, Levy began working to spin the app into a stand-alone company. With keen support from his boss, he enlisted the help of fellow lab staffer Aakash Sahney (now co-founder and chief technology officer), recruited several other co-workers and secured research funding from Google and a grant from the federal government. With that, MyVoice Inc. was born in early 2011.

MyVoice is still in its infancy, but Levy is confident about its prospects. Its main rival, Pittsburgh-based DynaVox, each year sells US$108 million of what Levy believes is outdated and overpriced technology. And that's achieved by reaching only a tiny percentage of the potential market.

Levy isn't just out to convert his competition's clients; he's after the 93% of speechchallenged North Americans who don't use an electronic assistant. He believes MyVoice can reach 20% to 30% of this pool-and his research tells him doing so could be worth $2 billion a year: "There are so many people in this category who are literally and figuratively voiceless. Giving them better access to good technology creates a huge market."

Research trials and early-adopter feedback tell Levy that people love the app. MyVoice's page in the Apple App Store is full of effusive testimonials. To date, about 9,000 people have downloaded the free app; most have become paid subscribers. While that's a modest user base in the app space, it's twice as many as Levy planned to have by now. And he is confident that the user base will grow exponentially in coming months.

But Levy is savvy enough not to rest on his laurels this early in the game. He knows that to make the business a financial success, he has to gain market share-quickly, since rival companies are tuning into the demand for app-based speech tools.

(DynaVox, for instance, launched an iPhone app this past September.) "We intend to become a dominant player in a short time," he says. How? By continually enhancing the app and ratcheting up marketing activities. As for Levy's progression into entrepreneurship, it's not as serendipitous as it seems.

From a very young age, he wanted to run his own operation. "I've always had a predilection for technical management, and I've always had ideas for products," he says. "I just needed a circumstance in which people were clamouring for something I'd created to bring those goals to life. I've found it, and it's a very natural place to be."

Information is current as of the original date of publication.

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