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Startup connects mobile users to interpreters

February 9, 2015
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Startup connects mobile users to interpreters
The Fluency mobile app would provide mobile users with on-demand access to live interpreters for $5 a minute. Photo via startgarden.com

A startup is developing an app to connect businesspeople and travelers to live interpreters through their mobile devices.

Fluency

Start Garden, the $15-million seed fund in Grand Rapids, said last month that it will make an initial $5,000 investment in the in-development mobile app Fluency.

Fluency would provide users with access to a live pool of on-demand interpreters, versed in up to 160 languages, to eliminate misunderstanding in a crucial situation.

After pushing a button, users would be connected to a certified interpreter or linguist within 30 seconds.

Fluency is building iOS and Android versions of the app.

Curt Prins, founder of Fluency, said the app could be played from a telephone call or speaker to provide interpretation when it’s needed most, such as during a critical business meeting or an emergency situation for travelers.

“I have talked to a lot of people who have been abroad in a business situation and have been in meetings, gone to critical points in the meeting . . . fly 5,000 miles home, and sure enough, there is a big barrier that wasn’t conveyed,” Prins said. “We see the opportunity and realize that someone does not need an interpreter for 11 hours. There are social situations where a minimal amount of the local language can get you through and when the critical detail has to be carried over — that is where an interpreter can really fit in.”

With an MP3 function built into the infrastructure of the app, users could record their session with an interpreter to re-visit or relay the session.

Fluency leverages partnerships with interpretation providers, such as AT&T Language Services, to provide access to interpreters.

The interpreter access via the app would cost $5 per minute.

The team behind the app has experience in development, product marketing and sales within the travel industry.

The Fluency team is made up of several part-time employees and Prins, who's a full-time employee.

Target markets

Prins said that the company realizes not everyone can afford the service, and it’s primarily focused on business professionals and high-end travelers.

Prins added that though some companies can afford to pay up to a minimum of $100 an hour for an interpreter to accompany a business representative for a day abroad, often the translator is supplied by the client.

“Right there is a conflict of interest,” Prins said. “A lot of business people find it challenging to find a valid interpreter that learns a little bit about their business and can carry it forward. The world is getting smaller and smaller for people in business, and they have to enter more emerging markets . . . where the business of language is English, but in reality, English is just not as well spoken.”

The secondary target audience is high-end travelers who may end up in an emergency and need to convey the situation to medical personnel or a local.

The idea

Fluency was developed after Prins learned a company was using mobile phones to connect first responders with interpreters in emergency situations when there was a language barrier.

Upon speaking with a mutual contact who had coded the infrastructure of the program, Prins said he began researching and pulling materials together to develop a similar service for businesses.

After several attempts to find a developer, Prins was advised to outsource the development on a contract basis.

“That takes money,” Prins said. “It is money that I’d rather not spend at the moment, so someone tipped me off to Start Garden. I’ve had 20-plus years working with startups. Venture capitalists always get a bad name. I did some research on it and thought this is too good be true, because the hardest thing to do when you are an entrepreneur is to get a good start.”

Next steps

Fluency will use the Start Garden funds toward development, from its current state as a minimally viable product, or MVP, to the point of generating revenue.

With infrastructure already in place and a beta test completed to prove the viability of the service, Prins said it was just the matter of getting the mobile app operational.

“It’s a good feeling, but after that euphoria wore off, you realize you have to get to work and have a very condensed amount of time to do it,” Prins said. “I’ve traveled to a lot of different countries, and I know the startup community quite well in Tel Aviv . . .Twin Cities, Chicago . . . and their operating model is still unbelievable to me: the fact that they are willing to work with first-time entrepreneurs . . . it is quite unique.”

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