Zeena Qureshi

7 November 2020

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The availability of high-quality text-to-speech technology could fundamentally change the cost structure and business models around voice acting and other related fields. To learn more, we spoke with Zeena Qureshi, the founder of Sonantic, a startup building a platform for creating text-to-speech recordings at scale.
Zeena, welcome. Could you give us a quick introduction to your startup and your role there?
Sure. I'm Zeena Qureshi, co-founder and CEO of Sonantic. I have a background in teaching speech and language therapy to children with autism for the last nine years.

I've also spent the last six years building tech startups from the ground up. And my co-founder is John Flynn. He is the CTO of the company. He has spent over 10 years working on Hollywood films on post-production dialogue editing and he's worked with great actors like Christian Bale and Tom Hanks. But unlike most people with his background, he's also a speech researcher.

So together, we are looking at creating the world's most expressive and realistic artificial voices. We are working with entertainment studios, enabling voice acting on demand. Essentially, we spare creatives the cost and logistics of casting, contracts, booking studios, recording time, the long painful iteration cycles. And we make the process of voice acting in games faster and cheaper and enable creative freedom to do things that were not possible before.
Wow, impressive. And how does it work? What's the underlying system?
Sure. So we have a simple text to speech system. It's very like text and speech output, but we have controllable parameters and everything that we're doing is around high-quality voice.

So it’s looking at all the subtleties and nuances that we do naturally with our voices as humans, but not so simple for a computer to do -- and taking into account breath, intonation, pitch, cadence, emotions, emphasis, projection levels, all these little things.

We give users the ability to control them, to edit, sculpt and direct the performances they're looking for. This can be accessed through our app, which is more of a graphical user interface. Narrative designers, when they're writing out stories can listen to what they're writing out to see if it fits with the story.

We also have a command-line interface, which links to our API. Our API is the backbone of everything that we do and this way it fits right into people's workflows.
What is synthetic media and why is it so exciting? How will it change the world?
That's a good question. At Sonantic, we believe synthetic media is the use of AI to optimize and scale the abilities of how productions are made today. In the case of Sonantic, we are scaling acting talent to help break down the barriers of time, cost, and location.

I mean, this is something we've seen in corona too, but essentially how we work is on one side, studios will be able to edit and create performances on demand, taking iteration cycles down from months to minutes.

Then on the other side, we work with actors who can now have multiple jobs and earn passive income. They're also protected from fatigue because their AI can work for them 24/7.
That's amazing, the human aspect there and the augmenting aspect, right? So you're obviously a female deep tech founder and I would love to see that combination more often. What's wrong with diversity in tech? What needs to change? How could we see more women founding engineering-heavy startups?
Yeah, sure. I believe there isn't enough being done to give opportunities to those from humble backgrounds or from diverse backgrounds.

I think organizations need to actively seek diversity and inclusion and have that baked into their culture. And when it is, the chances for being assessed should have fair assessment without bias.

I know as a woman of color, people of color and women are told you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself and make it. And these goalposts are harder to hit when you're from a more diverse and underprivileged background.
True. And how do you ensure that your hiring pipeline is diverse?
So at Sonantic, we actively look for diverse candidates and have been able to keep our gender ratio at 50/50. It's also helpful being a woman of color as a CEO.
My co-founder, John, he's actually half Chinese, so it makes candidates feel more welcome to apply and see the proof that diversity and inclusion is in our culture. And I guess one of our fun facts was when we first started the company, John was the only guy. We had more females on the team.
And then we started fixing the gender ratio and now we're 50/50.
Last question -- As I believe that we need to speak more about positive examples, about good examples, which other female deep tech founders would you like to highlight?
Sure. So I think someone who's been around for just over a decade is Rana el Kaliouby, she's the CEO and co-founder of Affectiva. They run emotional recognition software. I think it's pretty amazing that she's been there from the very beginning and has continued to lead the company to where it is today. I think Entrepreneur First, which is the accelerator John and I came out of, also has a lot of women in their cohorts, leading tech companies. I think Hazel Savage at Musiio has an AI music startup. Every time I'm looking on LinkedIn, I see her smashing it. I definitely think those two are definitely high on the list.
Zeena, thanks a lot.
You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

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