A Rexburg company has built a software program it says can help HR departments test applicants’ foreign language skills.
Two Brigham Young University graduates set out to create a business that pairs companies and schools in Brazil and China that are seeking to teach English to employees with college students willing to teach it. The two men, Brigham Tomco and Jacob Burdis, founded Emmersion Learning in Rexburg in April 2015 with hopes of employing BYU-I students.
While working with the foreign organizations, Emmersion Learning kept hearing the same complaint over and over: That there was no affordable way to test the language students’ skills to ensure they would be able to apply their English in real-world situations.
“We kept hearing how testing wasn’t where our partners wanted it to be,” Burdis said. “There are a lot of language learning companies, but a lot of the schools don’t have a way to cheaply and efficiently test their students. We realized we could help by isolating that measure.”
Burdis had a lot of personal experience working on this problem. He earned a doctorate and master’s degree in instructional psychology and technology with an emphasis in language learning from BYU. His doctoral dissertation was on innovative language assessment, and he created an online language course for BYU Independent Study for his master’s project. Tomco founded Zylun Global, a private equity-backed investment holding company.
Burdis was able to use his experience and $50,000 that he and Tomco invested in the company to create a software program that Language Testing International, language proficiency testing company, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Missionary Training Center agreed to test on their students studying foreign languages.
“LTI in Korea had their students take our assessment and then take their (English) test and we were able to correctly predict the score the student would receive 89 percent of the time,” Burdis said.
Emmersion Learning now administers 200 tests a month for five organizations including Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Lumos Language School in Millcreek, Utah. Burdis and Tomco expect that number to increase rapidly as the Missionary Training Center and LTI integrate Emmersion’s program into their lessons for all students. Burdis said the company also has about 30 other deals pending with other organizations.
There are at least two other companies offering spoken language assessments, Duolingo and Versant, but neither company focuses exclusively on spoken language. Both offer placement tests in reading, writing and some speech.
Burdis estimates that language placement testing is a $2.3 billion industry.
“The way these guys are approaching language learning, I haven’t seen anyone else trying to do it,” said Norris Krueger, founder of Entrepreneurship Northwest, who has helped mentor Emmersion Learning as they seek seed investment.
“Working with entrepreneurs, you meet with a lot of companies and sit through a lot of boring presentations,” he said. “These guys were definitely not boring.”
Now that Emmersion Learning’s product has gained a little traction with language schools, Burdis said he may set his sights on a new market – businesses seeking Spanish-speaking employees. Idaho Central Credit Union’s HR department uses Emmersion Learning’s product, and Mountain America Credit Union met with the company May 19 to learn more, Burdis said.
Emmersion Learning is seeking $500,000 in seed funding to further develop its product and grow sales to about $1 million in recurring revenue within the next 18 months, up from $80,000 in 2016, Burdis said.
The company will also use the money to add developers and sales staff to its team of six employees.
Mark Roberts of the Boise Angel Alliance judged an Emmersion presentation at a Deal Forum event May 18 hosted by VentureCapital.org. Roberts asked how the program differentiates between different accents.
“Someone whose L sounds like a W, how do you account for that in your software? My brain can understand what the person is saying, but machines don’t think like that,” he said. “If you are giving this to companies to use for HR and to determine who is qualified for a job, that can be a huge implication.”
Emmersion’s program doesn’t analyze pronunciation, but instead calculates how effectively a speaker gets the message across. There is room for the mixing of synonyms and mispronunciations in its tests, Burdis said.
“We are developing this similar to how your iPhone works,” he said. “Apple doesn’t want to change the way you speak. It wants you to be able to say something to Siri and have it understand you.”
Emmersion Learning charges businesses between $15 and $20 per test.
“This is a really interesting product,” Roberts said. “It seems to really resolve a problem in the space.”
Burdis and Tomco were invited to meet with several angel funds after Burdis’ presentation at the forum. The two men will meet with the Boise Angel Alliance and Vandal Venture Fund the week of June 2 and VentureCapital.org has introduced them to three or four angel funds in Utah including the Park City Angels, Burdis said.