It’s not often that a rising tech startup’s roots are traced back to something as lo-tech and analog as a deck of colorful playing cards.
But such is the case with Blue Canoe, a company co-founded two years ago by three veteran Eastside tech entrepreneurs with a singular goal: Increase business productivity by helping non-native, English-speaking employees communicate clearly with customers and colleagues.
Blue Canoe doesn’t teach people how to speak English. Rather, the company elevates master ESL educator Karen Taylor’s Color Vowel System, a chart- and card-based teaching tool that has helped scores of non-native English speakers improve their command of the English language by matching its 14 singular vowel sounds to 14 individual colors — such as “blue moon,” “gray day,” “green tea,” “white tie,” and 10 others.
For years, international organizations such as the Peace Corps and the U. S. Department of State, as well as Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, have found the Color Vowel System a useful communication tool.
“English has five vowels, but 14 distinct vowel sounds,” explained Blue Canoe co-founder and CEO Sarah Daniels, during a visit to the company’s headquarters at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) lab on South Lake Union. “Let’s say you come from a Spanish-speaking country, and you are learning English. Spanish has five vowels and five vowel sounds. In order to speak English clearly, you need 14 vowel sounds. You are going around hearing and speaking English with only five vowel sounds. Of course you are not going to be well understood.”
Daniels noted that prior to the Color Vowel System, the strategy was to listen to the English language and repeat what you hear. It was hardly productive. “Just listen harder, right?” she continued. “It’s pretty much an impossible task, which is why you have people who have lived in this country for 20 years still making the same mistakes in their pronunciation as the day they arrived.”
According to Daniels, the Color Vowel System and the Blue Canoe app allow users to unlock their brain’s center for language sounds, incorporating things such as rhythm, music, colors, and kinesthetics to help.
“We are leveraging the brain’s visual cortex to recognize colors and images; leveraging the brain’s center for music to recognize rhythm patterns; and (leveraging) the brain’s center for movement to register kinesthetics,” she added.
So how did Taylor’s Color Vowel System transition from charts and playing cards to a mobile app?
According to Amit Mital, a former Microsoft Corporate VP and Symantec CTO, and the founder and CEO of the local tech business incubator Kernel Labs, Taylor, a longtime friend and colleague, approached him to discuss funding to mass-produce and market playing cards based on the Color Vowel System.
“The idea was interesting, but I wasn’t really that interested in giving a bunch of money to print a bunch of card games,” Mital recalled. “How about we create a digital business instead? A phone app where someone could play against a computer?”
Mital was more keen on building a specialized speech recognition engine with machine learning that would detect errors in pronunciation consistent with the Color Vowel System, with the ultimate goal of basically owning the objective way of measuring and improving English pronunciation.
“In order to do that, you need automation,” he added. “You need AI.”
Mital enlisted two Eastside colleagues — Tony Andrews, a former principal software architect at Microsoft, and Daniels, a serial startup entrepreneur and former interim CEO and Marketing VP at DreamBox Learning — to co-found Blue Canoe. Andrews is Blue Canoe’s CTO; Daniels is the CEO; and Mital and Taylor serve on the board of directors.
In a short amount of time, the trio has secured $1.4 million in funding, hired a team of 10 employees, and become the first company accepted into the AI2 Incubator program, which is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Blue Canoe released the pilot app in November 2017, then an updated version to the general public in August 2018. Businesses in 16 countries use the app, which allows users to record their own voices and play interactive games that offer immediate feedback on their English pronunciation.
One company that uses Blue Canoe is Acumatica, a Bellevue business that produces cloud-based business management software.
“I learned about Blue Canoe through my local tech network and quickly realized that their solution solved a key problem that we have as we work to scale Acumatica across North America,” explained CEO Jon Roskill.
Acumatica has customer service representatives overseas, as well as product managers in Mexico, French-speaking Canada, Europe, and Asia.
“Clearer understanding through improved pronunciation via Blue Canoe can help benefit Acumatica and its customers,” added Roskill.