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It was pure accident that led to Dr Clive Summerfield becoming one of the nation’s leading speech recognition and voice biometrics experts. On first arriving in Australia he’d been offered the pick of two research jobs – one working on video technology and the other on speech – by the time he had decided he fancied working in video that position had been filled, leaving just the speech research role open.

The rest as they say is history – and in Summerfield’s case it’s a rich history.

Today he’s the founder and chief executive of Auraya Systems, which has developed Armorvox, a voice biometric and speech recognition system that is already deployed in St George Bank and New Zealand’s tax office. It’s his second start-up having previously founded Syrinx which produced speech recognition which was used in TABs, CommSec and AT&T in the US.

Summerfield’s timing is better this time around thanks to the advent of the smartphone. According to ABS statistics released this week there are now over 16 million mobile phone subscribers in Australia, and a growing proportion of these are smartphones – used not only for voice but internet connection.

With security a key issue for smartphone users voice biometrics seems the logical technology to allow user authentication. At the same time enterprise contact centres could also benefit from a technology which allows someone ringing in to be identified and authenticated just from their voice print.

Summerfield’s banking on it, with his core ambition being to turn Auraya into a real alternative to market leader Nuance.

His first enterprise, Syrinx, was founded in 1990, and over a decade used $20 million in venture capital to become the largest speech recognition business outside of the US and Europe, with a team of 65 people. But along the way Summerfield was ousted by new management installed at the company and started casting around for new opportunities.  

Nine months later when Syrinx went into liquidation Summerfield found himself working with Ted Dunstone, helping to set up Australia’s Biometrics Institute; and later working with VeCommerce which was a Nuance reseller and has since been bought by Salmat.

He was then offered a position as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra in computer science focussed on biometrics. “I was a Clayton’s professor – they pretend to pay me so I pretend to work,” says Summerfield. But the gig eventually led to his latest adventure.

In 2005 Centrelink asked the university to undertake an evaluation of off the shelf voice biometrics, and Summerfield helmed the project through his consulting business 3SH which developed a methodology for evaluating voice biometrics.

“Centrelink worked out that by automating authentication they could save a bundle and strengthen security.” On the back of that report the organisation starting talking to Telstra about implementing a voice biometrics system. In a curious twist of fate Telstra had ended up with the Syrinx intellectual property in its portfolio, having bought local business Kaz, which had itself salvaged the IP from the wreck of Syrinx.

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Beverley Head

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Beverley Head is a Sydney-based freelance writer who specialises in exploring how and why technology changes everything - society, business, government, education, health. Beverley started writing about the business of technology in London in 1983 before moving to Australia in 1986. She was the technology editor of the Financial Review for almost a decade, and then became the newspaper's features editor before embarking on a freelance career, during which time she has written on a broad array of technology related topics for the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Boss, BRW, Banking Day, Campus Review, Education Review, Insite and Government Technology Review. Beverley holds a degree in Metallurgy and the Science of Materials from Oxford University and a deep affection for things which are shaken not stirred.

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