“I viewed voice as the past, where it’s really the future,” says Cisco Executive Chairman and former CEO John Chambers.
That’s why he’s made a personal investment in hot voice security and fraud-fighting startup Pindrop, and it’s why he’s joining the company’s board of directors, Chambers tells Business Insider. Representatives for Pindrop declined to share the size of the investment.
Chambers was brought in to Pindrop by famed Andreessen Horowitz cofounder Marc Andreessen, he says — who, incidentally, will also be joining Pindrop as a Board Observer, with Andreesen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado joining the Pindrop board directly.
What attracted Chambers to Pindrop, he says, is the opportunity to apply the security expertise he gained at Cisco to what he views as the next logical step in computing.
“What I do very well is get market transitions right,” says Chambers. “Voice is the next interface.”
From Chambers’ perspective, voice has gone beyond just the good old phone call: As evidenced by the rise of gadgets like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home, and even by the prevalence of automated customer service systems, the human voice is emerging as a major new way for people to interact with computers.
That voice shift is going to require a massive rethinking of how to handle security — and Chambers thinks that Pindrop has the potential to be that rare company that both improves security and makes people’s lives easier. “It is a world where security is a must,” says Chambers, and he thinks Pindrop could be “the industry standard.”
Today, Pindrop claims that its customers include “eight of the top 10 US banks alongside two of top five insurance carriers,” and claims it doubled its revenue from 2015 to 2016.
The big voice
The basic promise of Pindrop, says CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan, is that proving you are who you say you are on the phone shouldn’t require “answering a bunch of stupid questions.” By tracking the sound of your voice, what you’re trying to do, and even the device you’re using, Pindrop can make a good guess that you are who you say you are.
So if you’re calling your bank or your cell phone provider, Pindrop promises that you won’t have to remember a password or give your social security number (a particular sticking point for Balasubramaniyan). If you’re using your phone, and you sound like you, and you’re using it in a way that doesn’t raise red flags, you’re in.
But Balasubramaniyan says that if you’re a bad guy, Pindrop’s technology will detect that you’re on the wrong phone and that you’re trying to do something that you ordinarily wouldn’t do — if you’re an iPhone user from Kentucky, it’s probably not great if an Android phone is trying to drain your life savings into an offshore bank account.
That makes it a win-win-win. Better security, fewer passwords, plus the system knows exactly who’s talking to it. That last part is going to be even more clutch as the Amazon Echo and devices like it get traction, opening the door to all kinds of new opportunities for personalisation.
“This is a classic, canonical example to take IT and bring it to people in a natural way,” says Casado.
Voice of leadership
Chambers and Casado both praise the leadership and industry knowledge of Balasubramaniyan, who took a project he worked on while still a PhD student at Georgia Tech and turned it into a hot startup with $US122 million in funding — including a rare double-play investment from both Alphabet’s GV and Google Capital.
Beyond the product and its technology, “I invest in the CEO,” says Chambers.
Casado says that the academia-to-startup route reminds him of his own path into Silicon Valley, where his own PhD project turned into networking startup Nicira, which in turn sparked a bidding war (with Chambers’ Cisco, actually) and got bought by VMware for $US1.26 billion in 2014.
He sees the potential for Pindrop to make similar ripples in the tech industry, as developers look for ways to build this kind of security into their voice applications, and find that the startup is already doing it. In other words, as Alexa, Google Assistant, and other voice interfaces grow, so too does Pindrop’s market.
“I love a big story,” says Casado. “I’m just a sucker for these things.”
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