Ukrainian synthetic voice startup Respeecher is finding success despite not only bombs falling on its city, but also a wave of publicity that has raised sometimes controversial competitors. New funding of $1 million should help the company add some studios to its media and gaming clients.
Respeecher is perhaps best known for being chosen to replicate James Earl Jones and his iconic Darth Vader voice for an animated Star Wars show and then a younger Luke Skywalker for The Mandalorian. But the company also worked with game developer CD Projekt (of Witcher and Cyberpunk fame) and recently struck a deal with Warner Music to recreate another iconic voice: French singer Edith Piaf.
Unlike text-to-speech engines, Respeecher uses voice models to modify the speech of actors, who do their best to recreate the voice or character in question. That way it’s not just generated, but more like a prosthetic voice. They also change the accent, which is useful for reducing an unwanted accent or helping to place one.
The ethical issues involved in cloning someone’s voice are obvious, particularly someone long dead who cannot meaningfully consent. And some startups and services have simply let the cat out of the bag, seeing it as a losing battle in many ways. (Not to mention it limits the range of clientele).
Respeecher has made ethics a pillar of its business across its various verticals.
“Consent is obtained from those who hold the rights; in the case of deceased actors, it could be estate or family,” said CEO and co-founder Alex Serdiuk. “There are many cases where they are very involved in the process and provide valuable feedback to make the voice perfect, as these projects are a tribute to their family members, their contribution and the characters they built.”
More recently they worked with Calm to have a voice based on the voice of old Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart.
For the living, permission and compensation are resolved from the beginning. Voice actors are starting to see these voice models as assets to control and monetize, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) being a threat to their livelihood. Respeecher is assembling a library of voices from actors who have chosen to participate in the process, and the company has also joined Adobe’s Content Authenticity Initiative (for what it’s worth).
By not focusing on scaling like crazy during a big year in AI, Respeecher may have lost some capital or business opportunities. But in this case, slow and steady can go a long way, and besides, a lot happened in kyiv last year.
“Like all Ukrainian companies and startups, this war taught us what it really means to be resilient,” Serdiuk said. Raising funds is never easy, and it would probably be easier if Russia didn’t regularly attack our cities with Shahid missiles or drones. After all this, I think there are almost no obstacles that our team has not been able to overcome or solutions that we have not been able to find.”
However, the company has managed to pursue a new vertical during this chaotic time: synthetic voices for people who have lost the ability to speak for themselves. We’ve seen other startups and established companies enter this space, which may not be as lucrative or flashy but can change lives.
“We have many projects with hospitals and with patients with ataxia or laryngectomy. One of the laryngectomy patients we had the opportunity to work with [is] Konrad Zieliński, a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw who had lost his voice due to a laryngectomy. Our technology helped him communicate more naturally with his own voice,” said Serdiuk. You can read more about Konrad’s case in this blog post.
Respeecher announced today that it had raised a $1 million “pre-Series A” round, to which entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and funds ffVC Poland, Bad Ideas, ICU and SID Venture Partners contributed.