Sign-Speak joins AWS Impact Accelerator

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Last month, Sign-Speak, a real-time ASL translator, became the first Rochester startup to join the Amazon Web Services Impact Accelerator in its Latino founders cohort. 

The $30 million business and technical mentorship program supports underrepresented tech founders in various ways, including $225,000 for every qualifying startup, training tailored  to each startup’s goals, and advice from an advisory support team of AWS leaders.

Sign-Speak enables businesses to effectively communicate with deaf and hard of hearing clients and employees by using artificial intelligence. According to the company, in the United States alone, there are over 37 million daily interactions using American Sign Language.

Through language software on a smartphone or laptop that recognizes sign language and translates it into the spoken word, and vice versa, Sign-Speak harnesses the power of machine learning. For example, one of its services, Sign-Speak Basic, allows businesses to make their chatbots and virtual agents more accessible by recognizing ASL and signing back responses to users.

The idea for Sign-Speak began with the company’s co-founder and chief product officer, Nikolas Kelly. A deaf person, Kelly was frustrated with the communication challenges he experienced in a world built for hearing people. He led a program at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, designed to teach hearing students ASL to help them communicate and interact with their deaf counterparts.

Yamillet Payano

Kelly then met Nicholas Wilkins, a Google software engineer and RIT graduate, who learned about deaf culture while completing his degree, and Yamillet Payano, co-founder and CEO, who joined the team motivated by her personal experience with a family member.

“I really genuinely believe we have a strong founding team,” says Payano. “We have someone who is a deaf advocate, we have someone who understands technology really deeply, and we have someone who can bring people together from all abilities.

“The deaf and hard of hearing community upstate is very tight and very graceful. We’ve been able to do a lot of usability tests in Upstate New York because of this community. This has been pivotal in the way we have developed this technology and in the way that we’ve been able to survive.”

In addition to Sign-Speak Basic, the startup offers two other services, Sign-Speak Web and Sign-Speak Enterprise. Web is a digital extension that translates website text into ASL using a pop up signing avatar. Enterprise allows business clientele and employees to use ASL by implementing an application programming interface to any communication channel. Sign-Speak, through its offerings and with AWS’ help, hopes to enable businesses to expand their customer base through accessibility, enhance customer loyalty, and improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Two years in the making, the AWS Impact Accelerator was launched in 2022 after identifying the low percentage of venture capital funds that are distributed to business founders that belong to underrepresented groups. AWS began running the eight-week Impact Accelerator programs with its Black founders cohort in June 2022, followed by a women founders cohort that October. Sign-Speak, currently part of AWS’ first Latino founders cohort, will complete the eight-week program at the end of June.

“At AWS, we really wanted to ensure that we were setting a grounding opportunity for those startups that are building amazing platforms and products, but have been overlooked,” says Densie Quashie, AWS’ global head of marketing programs for startups. “We wanted to bring together what we do best at AWS— technical expertise from years of working with startups from the AirBnBs to the Ubers to the Lyfts— and pull it all into an eight-week program that really sets these startups up for success and helps scale them quickly.”

Amazon Web Services Impact Accelerator’s Latino founders cohort in Seattle
(Photos courtesy of AWS)

Sign-Speak has traveled to AWS headquarters in Seattle to set business goals, met weekly with business and technical mentors, and participated in virtual programming with AWS partners like Canva and Carta. During the last week of the program, the Sign-Speak team will fly to New York City to deliver closing pitches to investor partners. 

Payano, a first generation Afro-Latina chief executive, has found the tailored feedback and intentionality of AWS in building Sign-Speak’s advisory support team to be the  most impactful thus far. 

“It’s been very fundamental to me to meet other Latino founders and network with them and learn of some of their challenges. Like Denise said, sometimes we are often counted out. That wasn’t the message of the programming— it was ‘you’re counted in,” she says. 

Both Quashie and Payano see the program as just the beginning for Sign-Speak. The connections and mentors made through the accelerator are still available to the startups after the program, and the startups join the AWS alumni network to stay up to date on industry insights and best practices. 

Sign-Speak has already grown from a team of three to a team of five, and is considering building the team to 12 employees over the next year.

“We want every business in America to be able to use AI Sign Language recognition to provide accessibility. We want to empower and enhance accessibility where accessibility is currently not being given,” says Payano. “I think Sign-Speak can become a way of life for many deaf and hard of hearing individuals and provide empowerment.” 

Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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