What do Zooey Deschanel, John Malkovich, Martin Scorsese, and Samuel L. Jackson have in common with Adam Fish, co-founder of the startup Roobiq? Besides interests in film, the former set have been featured in Apple television commercials interacting in unexpected ways with their iPhones through Siri, Apple’s natural language interface. Meanwhile, Fish is building a Siri-like interface called Roobi that works with business applications. Roobi is a mobile personal assistant designed to help salespeople log calls, meetings, opportunities, and leads via speech.
As a high school student, Fish aspired to be an independent filmmaker. The business aspect of filmmaking is what interested him the most.
“I love the process of making films,” said Fish. “I was the guy who did the film production work, built the special effects, and got the licenses and film permits downtown.”
One film in particular, “Axe Murder Hollow,” gained a significant cult following.
“It’s so hilariously bad that you like it for its atrociousness,” said Fish.
Based upon a local horror legend in Erie, Pennsylvania about kids who went to a house where a guy killed his wife with an axe, the film attracted viewers in part because it was partially true.
“There was a murder that occurred at the house, but it didn’t involve an axe,” said Fish.
The popularity of the film resulted in demand for DVDs for both purchase and rental at local video stores. It is also regularly shown at regional horror film festivals.
“It really was a business,” said Fish. “We created a product, marketed it, and sold it.”
Fish’s diverse interests in technology, engineering, biology, medicine, and film made his college decisions very challenging. Initially, he wanted to determine if his work in independent film was what schools were looking for, so he applied to the film schools at New York University and the University of Southern California to see if he could get accepted.
“I messed up the USC application because you need to submit two separate applications,” said Fish. “I got into [biomedical engineering], but they threw out my film school application.”
Somewhat relieved, Fish chose not to pursue a career in film and focused on his biomedical engineering studies.
“The industry wasn’t really that appealing,” said Fish. “There’s a benefit to being an independent filmmaker. You don’t make any money, but you get the freedom. Hollywood didn’t look that great.”
However, the pull of his passion for film was too great to ignore and he eventually switched from biomedical engineering to biology and film.
“Once I got to USC, how could I not spend four years here and be involved in film?” said Fish. “I walked by the George Lucas Building every day. It just killed me.”
So how did his path diverge from that of a filmmaker like Scorsese who would merely use a natural speech interface to someone who created an entirely new one?
After graduating from USC in 2008, Fish found himself looking for the next steps in the midst of a recession. He returned to Louisville to be near the support of his family and soon started the joint Doctor of Medicine and Master of Business Administration program at the University of Louisville. However, he quickly realized that medicine was not his passion.
“The Chrysalis Ventures internship was the final nail in the coffin,” said Fish. “It gave me a bit of a platform to pivot out of medical school.”
He acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy choice.
“Physicians or lawyers, part of the 1 percent, are predominantly wealthy – not Warren Buffett wealthy, but they are very comfortable,” said Fish. “It’s a risk-free way to get everything you want in life.”
Faced with the option of continuing to pursue a career on the investment side with venture capital firms like Chrysalis Ventures, Fish also decided that it wasn’t the right path for him.
“To me, it was the halfway point,” said Fish. “I could play around in the entrepreneurial community, but I wasn’t really an entrepreneur. My problem was that I didn’t have a great business idea.”
While focused on running Forge, a quarterly networking event for startups, Fish met his Roobiq co-founder, John Receveur.
According to Fish, the name Roobiq came about after some trial and error.
“It was the only two syllable word we could get a domain name for,” said Fish with a laugh.
After pursuing a number of ideas, Fish hit upon his breakthrough idea after a conversation with a friend who mentioned that, as a salesman, he would love to use Siri with salesforce.com, a cloud-based customer relationship management application.
“I sat down one weekend and broke down how I thought Siri worked and compared it to my work with text analytics,” said Fish. “I realized that Siri is something that just understands natural language.”
Apple licensed the speech to text from a company called Nuance and Fish was able to do the same. Around the same time, he met Chris Vermilion, who joined the team as the technical co-founder.
“Meeting [Vermilion] was huge,” said Fish. “He’s absolutely incredible and it wouldn’t be possible without him. I have a little bit of a tech background. I learned C and Pascal [programming languages] in middle school and high school, but it fell by the wayside in college when I was pursuing my degree in biology. As a result, I can architecturally have a deep discussion, but when it comes down to writing the code, it’s not going to be me.”
Within six weeks of that weekend, Fish and his team had a crude demo and have since continued to refine it. As Roobiq continues, the challenge of staffing is clearly on Fish’s mind.
“Getting to the talent is a challenge because it isn’t readily apparent here,” said Fish. “The skills gap exists and we need to address it for the businesses here and the ones we want to attract. For us, it’s more acute than others because we’re dealing with ontology reasoning and speech recognition – things that just aren’t taught in most computer science departments. So I’m a little biased from a Roobiq perspective. But from a Forge perspective, I’m a little more optimistic. Yeah, there is a talent deficit, but, with ingenuity, you can find good talent and you may need to train it.”
-Grace Simrall, @Greendrv
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