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Innovation Economy

Start-up breaks Hollywood’s language barrier

Olenka Polak is cofounder of myLINGO.

Olenka Polak is cofounder of myLINGO.

Highlights from the Innovation Economy blog.

Growing up in a Connecticut household that mostly spoke Polish, Olenka Polak and her brother Adam had first-hand experience in how language can be a barrier to participating in the culture. And that led the siblings to start a company that would make a key part of American culture — the movies — more welcoming to non-English speakers.

The Polaks are cofounders of myLINGO, a still-stealthy start-up at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. It is developing a mobile app to make it easy to rent, for 99 cents, a movie audio track in a variety of languages.

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“You can imagine a scenario where the kids are fine watching a cartoon in English, but Abuela and Abuelo would want to listen to the audio in Spanish,” said Olenka Polak, who just wrapped up her sophomore year at Harvard.

For a demonstration, Polak played the Spanish version of “Toy Story 2” on her laptop. The prototype app on her iPhone listened to the soundtrack for 20 seconds or so; when I put the earbuds in, I could hear Buzz Lightyear in English, perfectly synchronized. The app checks in every few minutes with the soundtrack on the film or DVD, just to make sure it is still in the right spot.

Polak said Hollywood studios already record blockbuster releases in as many as 25 languages. Smaller films typically come in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The myLINGO app would let users search for movies available in their preferred language, and then rent the audio file for 24 hours.

MyLINGO won $10,000 in last month’s Harvard Innovation Challenge.

Polak said her hope is that the studios will see myLINGO as something that helps them expand their audience.

“We think that today there are a lot of immigrants who are not in seats,” Polak said.

She is just now discussing myLINGO’s technology with several Hollywood executives. Seems like an idea with big potential.

Former Vlingo executives spread out

A year ago, the speech-recognition giant Nuance Communications Inc. closed on its acquisition of the Harvard Square start-up Vlingo, which made a virtual assistant for smartphones — it is similar to Apple’s Siri — that attracted about 13 million users.

One Vlingo founder, speech guru Michael Phillips, is working on a start-up called Sage Devices that has raised seed funding from Charles River Ventures, which backed Vlingo and an earlier Phillips start-up called SpeechWorks. (It, too, was gobbled up by Nuance.)

Former Vlingo product manager Chris ­Micali is also on board. Phillips did not want to be too specific about Sage, but said he is interested in home automation and technologies for monitoring and managing home energy usage.

Another Vlingo cofounder, John Nguyen, is leaving Nuance.

“I’m taking the summer off and will probably start my own thing afterwards, assuming it gets funded,” said Nguyen, who was Vlingo’s executive vice president of product and business development.

Two other employees got seed funding for a start-up called Pencil Labs, from Matrix Partners and Charles River Ventures, and Dave Grannan, Vlingo’s former CEO. They are trying to create an intelligent calendar that can reduce the amount of human effort involved in scheduling, say, a 90-minute meeting that involves 15 people.

“Some of the machine learning that the guys developed in the speech-recognition domain has a lot of cross-applications with scheduling,” Grannan said.

The founders are Han Shu and Joe Cerra.

Doron Gan, who managed the server team at Vlingo, has a new customer-care start-up called UserAtlas. His cofounder is Melyssa Plunkett-Gomez, a former executive at Crimson Hexagon and Unica.

Firm markets boat shoes

Massachusetts is home to a closet-full of shoe brands, including New Balance, Reebok, Converse, and Rockport. Now a start-up, Category 5 Boat Shoes, is trying to achieve that kind of name recognition. Over Memorial Day weekend, the founders were schmoozing at the annual Figawai sailing race from Hyannis to Nantucket. And the Framingham company presented a special-edition pair of boat shoes to the winning skippers.

The shoes are made in the Dominican Republic, said chief executive and cofounder Jason Shuman. They can be embossed with logos of college fraternities, outlines of islands such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, or an image supplied by the buyer. They are priced at about $80, with customization adding $10.

Category 5 won the grand prize in this year’s business-plan competition at the University of Miami, where Shuman was a student. The start-up’s five founders grew up together in Sudbury and Wayland.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation.
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