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Phone app that helps you speak better wins Jefferson start-up competition

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JEFFERSON

A Solon, Iowa, native with a health-care background took home the $25,000 “pitch-day” check for his business venture Tuesday after convincing a panel of entrepreneurs at a start-up competition held at Accenture’s Forge in Jefferson that his speech-improving mobile phone application — Speeko — has business takeoff potential.

Nico Aguilar, 30, the CEO of Speeko (“Nico from Speeko,” as he is fond of saying), said the funds will be used to boost a product that already is available on smartphones. The app uses artificial intelligence to provide feedback on people’s speaking styles with advice on pacing and filler words, speed of speech and other elements of communication, all aimed at turning Speeko users into more dynamic speakers.

“What an awesome community event,” Aguilar, the co-founder of the company, said. “It was really well organized. The judges were fantastic. I’m so proud I could be a part of it.”

Speeko has been in the Apple App Store for about a year. There’s a free platform and one that is more advanced for $12 a month. The Android version is coming out soon.

“With the paid version, you get more analysis of your voice,” Aguilar said. “We count up your filler words. We give you some more specific kind of coaching. But you can always use the free version, because we are committed to having that available.”

Aguilar said it is similar to a fitness or sleep tracker, only for speech.

“I used to struggle around my speaking style and having confidence issues with that,” he said. “After that held me back for several years, I finally just decided to try to overcome that. And that journey has changed my life in a lot of different ways. As a company, we want to bring that same kind of transformation and make it available to anyone.”

Founded in Iowa City and Chicago, the company now is located in downtown Chicago, where it is involved in a business accelerator.

“We’re just getting started,” Aguilar said. “We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible.”

The $25,0000 prize from the start-up competition will help with product development and attracting more users. Right now, Speeko has tens of thousands of people using the application in 162 countries.

“We have folks who are really young and folks who are really seasoned,” Aguilar said.

What’s the most common flaw in public speaking?

“Not pausing enough,” Aguilar said. “There’s so much power that can come from a pause, and it gives your audience the chance to really hear what you’re saying. That’s also really tied with filler words. Filler words are just taking the place of a pause. So don’t be afraid of a pause.”

Greg Sands, the founder and managing partner of Costanoa Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that invests in startups, said Speeko is a company that has limitless audience reach potential.

“We all need to speak better,” Sands said. “We all need to present better. That need is nearly universal. Even those people who don’t think they need it probably need it. It is one of those central human skills that is needed throughout the economy.”

Sands said Speeko has impressive traction with users. It is a No. 1-rated application in the Apple App Store, with about 12 percent of users converting to a paid subscription — “all of which is very impressive,” Sands said.

Sands, who has Minnesota ties, launched the competition in Jefferson because of his connections to Linc Kroeger, an executive with Accenture, and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. Khanna is involved in developing tech jobs in rural America and has made Jefferson a focal point of his efforts.

“I’m here because of Ro and because of Linc,” Sands said.

Sands said the Forge represents a commitment to creating economic opportunity for people in rural Iowa.

“The venue was spectacular,” Sands said. “I saw it when it was a shell. You couldn’t imagine that it would turn out this well, and to me, this is the kind of thing that we as a country need to do to make our economy work for everyone.”

Ben Milne, founder and CEO at Dwolla, and Ryan Broshar, founder and managing partners at Matchstick Ventures, joined Sands in evaluating businesses at the Forge’s Jefferson Pitch Day. The three other business finalists for the prize were: VerdiLife, a company that works with biomass to create organic fertilizers and pesticides; Roboflow, which enhances existing devices with computer vision and augmented reality; and Handrail, a company involved in surveys and data collection.

Mollie Ross, the director of talent and development with the nonprofit Technology Association of Iowa, said the event was fascinating for all involved.

“I think that that’s once of the most exciting things I see, being here in Iowa, is just the variety of technology companies that are building and growing here and things that you would never imagine right here in Iowa,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited about that.”

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