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Next Generation Leader: Umesh Sachdev, software developer, India.
Illustration by HelloVon for TIME

Building a Phone That Can Understand Almost Any Language

Jun 03, 2016

Umesh Sachdev builds bridges. Not the physical structures that span rivers but bridges of the virtual kind, helping hundreds of millions of people cross the divide between the digital and the real world by harnessing the power of speech.

It all began in 2007, when Sachdev and his college friend Ravi Saraogi went traveling in rural Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state. Still in their early 20s, the two engineers were already veterans of one mobile technology startup and looking for their next big idea. “It was our final try. If we failed, we were ready to apply for jobs,” says Sachdev. The eureka moment came when the pair noticed that almost every village household they entered had a mobile phone — but people only used them to make basic calls. “They weren’t accessing the internet or using any other services. They couldn’t,” he explains. The problem: the phones didn’t carry the language of the villagers. Although between them Indians speak an estimated 780 different languages and dialects, to this day most phones on the market only feature a handful of language options, such as English and Hindi.

To solve the problem, Sachdev and Saraogi set up Uniphore Software Systems. The Chennai-based startup produces software that allows people to interact with their phones and access services such as online banking by communicating in their native languages. At last count, Uniphore’s products—which include a virtual assistant able to process more than 25 global languages and 150 dialects—were being used by over 5 million people, mostly in India but alos beyond. “Phones can help increase financial inclusion or help a farmer get weather information,” says Sachdev, now 30. “But you need a way for people to interact with the technology out there.”

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Back in 2007, when they were searching for a new idea, Sachdev says he and Saraogi had one key requirement. “We wanted to do something that would have a mass impact,” he explains. With over a billion mobile phone subscriptions in India alone, Uniphore is sure to get many more people talking.

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