Travis the Translator: Digitizing languages to bring people closer together

Communication may seem like a natural thing, but it can be quite complex and confusing, too. There are close to 7,000 languages being spoken around the world, and a single person may be fluent in one or two, perhaps three. Language barriers are, thus, rather common – whether people deal with personal or professional matters.

Travis the Translator, founded by Lennart van der Ziel, Nick Yap and Brend Kouwenhoven, aims to bridge those barriers by digitizing as many languages as possible, and putting them together into one neat little translation device. 

 

Jumpstarting ‘purposeful products’

It all started in 2016 when the three founders got together – Lennart and Brend were involved in the foundation of Venture Café, CIC’s not-for-profit sister organization, and Nick was the host of a crowdfunding meetup, and still mentors many entrepreneurs. What they all had in common was a desire to create purposeful products.

“What we saw is that there are not many successful hardware startups in the Dutch ecosystem, and especially such that have a social impact,” Lennart says. “We also saw that there’s a disconnect between people with great ideas and people that can execute on them.”

As a result, the three entrepreneurs launched their initial venture, The Product Garage, in December 2016. The idea: to connect the right founders, and help jumpstart impactful product companies.

“Travis the Translator is the first child in a family of startups that we want to create,” Lennart says. While one of their future ventures may be a Travis sister company, the others will not necessarily be related to language learning.

 

Over 100 languages in the palm of your hand

For now, breaking down language barriers remains their number-one priority. Instead of reinventing the wheel by creating just another language app, however, the team decided to use what was already out there to create the most comprehensive translation device to date.

The startup has partnerships with Google, IBM and Microsoft, as well as with another eight companies, which remain undisclosed. The device integrates 11 different software engines and is able to offer more languages than anyone else out there. “We now have 108 languages, some of which are voice-to-voice supported, others only voice-to-text. We’re working on this progressively.”

Lennart, Nick and Brend do not shy away from hard work. In just two months in early 2017, they grew the company to over 20 people, and soon after, launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal to raise 80,000 dollars. A few weeks in, they already had 5,000 backers and around 600,000 dollars in pre-order value.

Since then, the team has developed their initial product, shipped it to more than 6,000 customers, raised a total of 1.9 million dollars in revenues, and closed several multi-million-dollar distribution deals. 

“We grew Travis from an idea to a young company that is now financially stable,” Lennart says. Some of their customers include the Dutch Army, telco company KPN, and a number of hospitals around the world.

 

Preserving languages is a global commitment

The ambition is to not only help people communicate more easily, but also to preserve as many languages as possible. “There are close to 7,000 living languages in the world and the 108 that we have are rather well-resourced,” Lennart says. “We need to be digitizing languages even if it’s not commercial.”

They founded the Travis Foundation to do just that, and the first language they’ve decided to focus on is Tigrinya, from the East African country of Eritrea. Many refugees around the world speak it, but they can’t use any translation device because the language is simply not supported.

The goal of the foundation is to digitize such languages and make them open source for free. Lennart and his team hope that other people will join them in this effort, and pledge their knowledge or resources to digitize as many languages as possible.

“After all,” Lennart says, “it’s a global problem and it needs to have a global solution.”


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Photographer: Raymond de Vries photography

Copywriter: Mina Nacheva

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