CHAPEL HILL — LiRA is building communication tools for people who cannot produce speech—and you can help.
The Chapel Hill-based startup was spun out of UNC, with five cofounders from healthcare and biomedical engineering. Currently led by CEO Andrew Prince, MD, the startup recently completed a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant and has received grants and awards from NC IDEA, The Clinton Foundation, Microsoft Partners, and Launch Chapel Hill.
“LiRA began as a seedling idea within the entrepreneurship scene at UNC Chapel Hill, and it has grown to become a simple and effective technology with incredible potential to change the lives of voiceless individuals,” Prince told TechWire over email. “Truly a homegrown startup, we are proud to have been given the opportunity to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs throughout the Triangle.”
Andres Tello, co-founder and CFO of LiRA, also spoke with TechWire to share more about the startup’s growth.
“LiRA could not have made it this far without the incredible support of the North Carolina entrepreneurial community,” said Tello over email. “We chose to incorporate in North Carolina because we feel strongly that this is the best community for the success of LiRA.”
A Voice for the “critically voiceless”
Dina Yamaleyeva, PhD, co-founder and Product Lead of LiRA, told me in an email interview that the startup’s goal is to create an app for individuals who have lost the ability to produce speech, either due to temporary or permanent causes.
“We have spoken with hundreds of individuals who are either voiceless/mute themselves, or who are family members or caregivers of such individuals, and the resounding response is that the current communication options are inefficient and cause frustration,” said Yamaleyeva.
According to Prince, current options include things like writing, gesturing, and cartoon picture boards, but these inadequate solutions can lead to isolation, depression, and a greater risk of adverse events when hospitalized.
“Text-to-speech solutions offer some promise but are limited in practicality during the early recovery period, considering cognitive and mobility demands,” said Prince. “With LiRAs app, we aim to eliminate frustration during communication by providing an easy-to-use and fast lip reading app which will be able to translate lip movements to speech in a matter of seconds as both text and audio on your smartphone.”
The short-term goal is to create an app that supports people experiencing “critical voicelessness” when hospitalized. Examples could include patients who have severe respiratory illnesses, or patients using a breathing tube.
“Loss of voice, specifically due to vocal cord inactivation, often follows life-saving surgical interventions, affects over 1 million individuals annually, with a 106% increase over the past decade,” Prince told me.
But eventually, the team hopes to create an app with a vocabulary that’s robust enough to support users in everyday life.
“We are confident that with enough participants we can make an app which provides effortless communication to all,” said Yamaleyeva.
The team realized that, in order for LiRA’s app to lip-read, LiRA’s algorithm would need access to a very specific kind of data—videos of people speaking.
So the startup partnered with Covintus, a Virginia-based development company, to develop LipTrain (www.liraglobal.com/liptrain), a platform where anyone can contribute selfie videos to help teach LiRA’s algorithm about lipreading.
“It only takes a couple minutes to contribute a significant amount of sentences, with each sentence taking only a few seconds,” said Yamaleyeva. “We have found that by increasing the amount of contributors per sentence, we can significantly improve the accuracy of the translation. That is why we are putting out a call to action for anyone who would be kind enough to help contribute a couple minutes of their time to read a few sentences to make this technology a reality.”
According to Prince, over 1600 people have submitted videos so far.
Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding
Since its inception in 2020, LiRA has earned more than $600k in non-dilutive funding, and the startup has $500K in earmarked investor funds through Fusen, an investor platform for startups and student founders.
“These funds will be unlocked through commercial milestone achievements, an opportunity which is incredibly exciting for LiRA’s future as we bring our solutions to the individuals that need it most,” said Prince.
According to Prince, their NSF grant funding will complete later this quarter, then the team plans to turn to crowdfunding “for investors to be a part of the MVP finalization process.”
“This will allow LiRA to begin testing the technology with actual users by the end of 2023,” said Tello.
The startup hopes to continue to use both crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to support its vision.
“The NSF SBIR was LiRA’s opportunity to validate this technology and to evolve its capabilities organically, and we are incredibly thankful for the continued support that we are receiving in crowdsourcing our technology’s data ambitions,” said Prince. “Our hope is that LiRA’s vision continues to be shared with the public, and that everyone has an opportunity to help the individuals we are serving with this technology.”