Dr Farzaneh Ahmadi is the CEO and Founder of Laronix, an Australian stratup creating Bionic Voice: the world’s first smart, wearable (non-invasive), artificial voice box that gives people who have lost their larynx, their voice back.
So far, Dr Ahmadi has raised over $1 million for Bionic Voice, and has guided the technology from inception to successful preclinical trials. She has more than 12 years of expertise in industrial R&D and academic research and has successfully delivered R&D projects with a total value of $2 million.
Laronix started with Farzaneh’s PhD research into giving a better voice to people with multiple levels of vocal disability. Dynamic Business sat down with her to find out more about this one-of-a-kind technology.
What is the story behind Laronix?
We were doing basic research like many other PhD students, and then one day a patient emailed our research group in Singapore. He said “I’m a singer, and I will lose my voice very soon and My voice is my life. Could you please help me?”
But we couldn’t. The research we were conducting was on a 20 year track, which may or may not help him eventually. This bothered me very much.
It seemed annoying to me that while this was my field of specialty (because we were synthesising natural voices anyway) we weren’t able to help him. The approach that we were using at the time was creative but far from becoming a tangible product.
When I finished my PhD research in 2013, I was very frustrated that we had not yet found a solution to human voice-loss problem. At some point, I even thought of giving up, and leaving the area all together. But then I came to Australia and, I realised that there is one approach that I hadn’t tried. So I applied for a fellowship at The University of Sydney, just to have one last attempt.
To my delight, this time our efforts paid off, and I invented the idea of the first functional Bionic Voice solution in 2015. In the upcoming four years, Bionic Voice progressed from a concept to a working solution. By 2018 we finally had managed to find a way to generate natural voice for people who have lost their larynx.
Who did you create this technology for?
Our customers are called laryngectomees. These are basically people who have lost their larynx due to the surgical removal of the larynx mostly because of cancer.
It might be surprising but at the moment, if anything happens to your larynx, there is no solution that gives you a natural voice back. While we have progressed in many fields of bionics such as the bionic ear, bionic eye, bionic limb, we had completely forgotten people who don’t have a voice and need a functional Bionic Voice device to speak.
It is a very painful situation. These people have the second highest suicide rate among all cancer survivors.
How does the Bionic Voice technology work?
As a healthy person, when you breathe out, your vocal folds generate voice in response to your breathing. When you say a voiced phoneme the vocal fold vibrate, when you say an unvoiced phoneme like ‘shh’ or ‘fft’, they just let the respiration pass through your mouth.
Our technology basically does the same. We mimic the performance of vocal folds as they are driven by respiration.
Larynx amputees breathe through a hole in the neck called the stoma which is where the Bionic Voice device attaches to. Bionic Voice acts basically like human vocal folds, but put outside the body.Inside our device, there is a model of human vocal folds implemented using artificial intelligence (AI) computer algorithms. This model does the same thing as a healthy person’s vocal folds in voice generation.
The AI technology used in Bionci Voice is called voice cloning, and it’s been in the market for several years. It’s a series of world’s most advanced algorithms that can be trained to makes one person’s voice sound like another. But no-one has ever used voice cloning in an artificial larynx to recreate the voice for someone who has lost their voice compeltty. That’s what we’re doing.
How did you build the company?
We basically started with building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which means initially, you have a device that works and then you extended it to multiple users.
Once we had our MVP, we started building a sratup portfolio around it. We started defining how the business was going to be shaped and we created a Business Plan to show how we were going to make revenue out of our technology.
One of the things that we learned, which was eye opening in the startup jeorney, was you don’t go and talk to investors, you go and talk to your customers. We started talking to many larynx amputees, and their speech pathologist and we learnt what it was that they needed most in a new artificial larynx product.
Once we built that portfolio, we participated in soem of the best accelerator programs. For early stage innovation companies, I think that’s a must, because their startup journey is different from a normal startup. There’s more R&D involved. For years or months, they will remain pre-revenue. And they needed to build enough momentum to carry on through that journey.
How did you raise investment?
Once these accelerator program were finished, we were naturally at the point where we started a dialogue with the investors, and we managed to raise our seed round.
We closed our seed round in September 2020 through Australian angels. We received a very warm reception in Australia, which was very heartwarming.
The people who invest in you, in an interesting way, somehow share your passion. One of the avenues that really helped were the Scale Investors. They are successful entrepreneurs who have gone through the whole pain of starting businesses, and they support exceptional female entrepreneurs. They supported us in the right way, at the right time.
What does Laronix’s future look like?
At the moment we are ahead of anyone else as a startup specialised in generating voice for people without a larynx. We, strongly believe in prospects of this amazing technology.
We are now focused on designing our commercial Bionic Voice device which is expected to have an exceptional voice quality and also be user friendly for patients.
Following Bionic Voice design, we have a trial planned in collaboration with Stanford University in 2021. We are very much looking forward to that. And if everything goes okay, we should be able to go to series A funding afterwards.