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Analyzing human emotions with voice. What is Poetics's challenge to develop a technology centered on empathy?

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"Empathize with your voice"

Poetics is a startup that develops voice products that stand out from the crowd these days when smart speakers have become commonplace. We aim to improve communication productivity in various situations by analyzing emotions from human voices. Poetics Inc. We interviewed Co-CEO Hasumu Yamazaki.

The fact that online MTG has become commonplace is boosting business

Please tell us about Poetics's business.

We are a startup that develops AI to analyze human emotions from voice. In particular, we are developing an algorithm that extracts features like voice speed and inflection from voice data to estimate emotions. This algorithm enables visualizing the speed of speaking in a meeting and analyzing if it is appropriate and how a specific person's speaking rate is changing.

Tell us the background that led to the business idea of "AI that analyzes human emotions from a voice".

Poetics is a startup carved out from a medical healthcare company called Smart Medical, which operates clinic malls and multi-clinics in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Poetics's parent company is the ICT section of Smart Medical, where we were conducting trials to see if we could contribute to the work of psychosomatic medicine with some technology. In the 1970s, research papers were published on analyzing human emotions from voice, and we also had been conducting our research and development. From there, we came up with the idea of estimating emotions without contact and providing value from the perspective of mental health, which has led to the current product development.that if we could estimate emotions without contact, we could provide value from the perspective of mental health, which led to the current product development.

Empath Sentiment Analysis (Credit: Poetics Inc.)

What led to the Carve out?

The main reason was that we had received more calls from external investors who wanted to invest. At that time, smart speakers equipped with voice assistants were emerging for distribution in the market. There was great expectation because they had a different technology from conventional voice recognition. Considering the practicality of running medical malls and research on voice analysis technology alongside product development, we decided to separate them. Our technology was already in a phase where we had received inquiries from call centers. In October 2017, we decided to carve out as expected by our investors.

Please elaborate on AI-powered SaaS "JamRoll" announced in March 2022.

Immediately after the carve-out, we were developing algorithms to be introduced into the services of large companies. For example, one of the functions of mental health care applications was detecting customer satisfaction and complaints in call centers. In other words, we were more like a parts-selling shop.

Currently, we are deploying an AI SaaS called "JamRoll". JamRoll is a video platform released in March this year. It allows AI secretaries to record, transcribe, and analyze online meetings automatically. It is an SaaS that can measure the mentality of participants in the meeting, such as who shared the screen and when and what kind of materials were developed. Using JamRoll, measuring the mental health scores of employees working remotely efficiently is possible. Currently, our customers are finding value in analyzing online business negotiations, recruitment interviews etc., thus reducing the cost of recording internal meetings.

Please tell us about the background behind the shift from the algorithm for voice emotion analysis to AI SaaS offerings like JamRoll.

While developing emotion analysis using voice, I was keenly aware that the problems that companies want to solve differ significantly. In the case of a call center, complaint detection and measurement of turnover rate are issues, while in the case of in-facility robots, the monitoring function is the issue. Immediately after the carve-out, we felt that we would need to provide subscription-type SaaS products to solve the problems various companies face.

Changing how we started working during the new coronavirus was a turning point. This is because, before Corona, obtaining live communication data in business was challenging, especially voice data of actual conversations. Only training data with limited situations from the call centers, etc., could be collected.

However, since 2020, how we work has changed significantly, and MTG online video recording has accelerated. The number of opportunities for voice tech companies like us increased. This Zoom interview is also being recorded, and like this, all business communication data of interviews, business negotiations, recruitment interviews, and internal meetings will also be readily available. However, JamRoll was the product where this learning data was utilized to release the data supply chain as a product. In the future, based on actual human communication data, we are looking at a scenario where each business person will own an AI-equipped product as a "business support agent".

Some of us go back to the offline mode of work. But working online is here to stay. Focusing on this point, we decided to create a product that can solve problems in the current data supply chain and online communication. Hence, we turned to new business development.

Image of JamRoll (Credit: Poetics Inc.)

So, you made a significant shift in product development with your eyes on changes in work style. Please tell us about the difficulties you faced after starting the company.

Immediately after its establishment, the market was good, and the company was able to grow steadily. However, partly because it was born as a carve-out, about a year after we turned to new business development, the mission and worldview we were aiming for as a company became very vague. Especially the core part, "What is the purpose of challenging as a startup?" This resulted in our first team member leaving the company at the same time. 2020-2021 was a difficult period, even though we spent time redefining the direction we wanted to take and understood it as a required phase.

What exactly did you do during those difficult times?

Specifically, we redefined our corporate mission and philosophy. From there, we created a system where all employees aim for the same world by incorporating concrete action plans and codes of conduct. At the same time, we thoroughly reviewed external communication tools like product branding and website renewal. After overcoming this period, the resolution of the world we aim for in the medium to long term has become higher, and the number of employees has increased. The team members who left have also returned. The current phase is outstanding.

Total commitment to band activities formed by startup founders

How do you spend your weekends refreshing yourself?

On my days off, I'm working on a band group formed exclusively by founders of startups. This activity has been going on for about 4 years, and I am the guitarist.

Band activities are fun! Are you actively giving live performances as well?

I am very active in both live performances and composing. I think it's very important to take leisure time seriously. I think it's also essential to take a break and rest your brain, but working on a completely different project seriously and continuously is like switching the brain. The band grows like a company. As a business owner, completely cutting off business information is difficult, so touching a musical instrument refreshes my brain by switching it.

In addition, all the band members are founders, and some have EXIT experience, so that we can discuss business. I think it's a community activity that I'm really grateful for because I can refresh my mind and have business discussions simultaneously.

Did you think of life as an entrepreneur since your school days?

When I was a student, I did nothing but music and research. I went on to a doctoral course in humanities and never expected to work for a private company. So, I was thinking of becoming a researcher. However, it takes quite a long time to obtain a doctorate in humanities and become an independent researcher, and it is also necessary to survive the fierce competition. When I was still at the university, I had a chance to participate in planning a startup.

At first, I was torn between research and business. However, in the field of AI, there are many areas where research in humanities can be utilized. I could contribute to the AI business while involved in the startup because I had a research background. This led me to the conclusion that it would lead to originality, and in 2018, I decided to take on the challenge of a startup.

Adopting a joint management system and becoming a solid organization

What are the current challenges in recruiting for startups?

Our company, with about 35 people, including outsourced members, is not yet a large organization. I have interviewed almost all the members I have hired so far. So, there are no issues at the moment, but there are areas that will be challenging in the future.

We plan to have an HR department, where people not from management will be in charge of interviews. At that time, I thought that regardless of which employee met the candidate, it was very important to convey the mission of Poetics and the code of conduct based on the mission in a way that was convincing to the candidate. It is always important to match the kind of culture fit visualized by Poetics. Since I am hiring for a startup, I aim to be able to talk with the candidates we are hiring by giving weightage to my words. Thankfully, many people are interested in changing jobs, and we believe that it will be important to form and embody a culture within the company while recruiting.

In January 2021, you were appointed as Co-CEO. Please tell us about the most significant change of having joint management from the organization's perspective.

The most unusual thing is the division of roles. Shimoji is very good at executing general business operations and formulating strategies with major companies. On the other hand, my strength is envisioning medium to long-term perspectives and creating the first move that will be the core of the next business from its conception. By dividing roles in this way, we can lessen the burden concentrated on Shimoji.

I have been able to use my experience and time to formulate new business paths that do not deviate from our mission. As a result, we are hiring more people, and the speed of product development is accelerating. I think we have become a more robust organization.

Questioning the normal of startups

Could you tell us about past events or programs that benefited you?

"Google Launchpad Accelerator Tokyo", a program developed by Google, was beneficial. Feedback from overseas mentors is challenging to obtain in Japan, so I used this program to brush up on business development. In addition, the experience of participating in overseas pitch contests gave me courage, and it was very useful for connecting with various people. We received an award, but the network we got from the pitch contest is more of a team asset than the award itself.

Many AI startups have taken birth in Japan and overseas. What are the perspectives necessary to survive in the fiercely competitive market?

There are two points that contradict each other. The first is to increase the top line of business performance steadily. There are many players in Japan and overseas, so chasing numbers is essential.

The second point is to add functions and update products in line with our mission and code of conduct. If you add functions or expand the lineup to raise the top line, you may lose sight of the client's needs. It is important not to forget the long-term perspective of what kind of world we will create in the future, even as we pursue solid growth with a firm eye on the ground. And for that reason, it is important not to forget to continue to learn steadily even if the scale and name recognition of the company changes. That's why Poetics's Code of Conduct includes the following five points:

  • keep learning
  • Keep communicating
  • Acknowledge and run with coincidences
  • Illuminate the present from the future
  • Make fellows
Poetics Code of Conduct (Credit: Poetics Inc.)

Finally, could you tell us your thoughts on the Japanese startup ecosystem?

Information about startup business development, organization building, funding, etc., is becoming more and more open than before. The environment surrounding startups is improving.

However, paradoxically, it can also be said that the established information about startups has matured and is becoming outdated. The statement "Because startups are XX" will ultimately cause brain freeze. Is it okay to introduce "The Model" that landed from the United States, or is it okay to introduce existing SaaS metrics? As the startup ecosystem matures, using your brain to think becomes even more necessary.

Furthermore, if we take it a step further, even the challenge of solving the world's problems as a corporation may also become obsolete. If you are bound only by the concept of a so-called startup, you may get tripped up. We also just happened to adopt a system called corporation now, which is only an organization called a startup by the world. If you try to force yourself into the framework of a startup, you will narrow your horizons, and the world is approaching a point where things will not go as smoothly as they have until now, even if one goes with the theory. That's why startups need a bird's-eye view, such as being in the startup ecosystem and watching for other ecosystems.

Mr. Yamazaki, who has a background as a researcher in humanities, has a very long-term perspective. With the stance that startups are nothing more than creating value worldwide, Poetics continues to challenge product development by analyzing human voices.

Thank you!

Editor's comments

Mr. Yamazaki, who has a background as a humanities researcher, had a very long-term perspective. With the stance that startups are nothing more than a means to create value in the world, Poetics continues to take on the challenge of product development through the analysis of human voices.