MyBuddy, an artificial intelligence-powered English tutoring app, features a friendly robot that guides children through speaking exercises. And this week, it found a new pal in Edwin, a developer of an eponymous chatbot that also uses AI to provide language instruction.
They’re so cozy, in fact, that the two companies have merged, and MyBuddy.ai will become the brand for the combined entity. Its headquarters will be in San Francisco, where Edwin was based.
According to Edwin co-founder Dmitry Stavisky, this was an all-stock transaction, and no cash was exchanged. As a part of the deal, half of his team—he and two others—will join the new parent company. Stavisky has taken a new title as chief operating officer of MyBuddy.
Similar to MyBuddy, Edwin offers an app for English language learners, which featured a chatbot that users can communicate with. But the San Francisco-based company focused on helping older learners—high-school pupils, college students and working professionals—prepare for standardized exams for English as a foreign language, like the TOEFL.
Edwin’s target market was overseas, and to date it claims that 800,000 students across Latin America, Japan and Korea have practiced English with its chatbot, which is available through Facebook Messenger.
In 2018, the company tried to expand its offering by creating and selling English courses. But it “found a very tough market” in Japan and Korea, says Stavisky. When it came to structured English language programs, most people in those countries preferred to take them in traditional tutoring centers, he found.
Edwin considered an expansion to earlier ages, and an opportunity with MyBuddy surfaced. The heads of the two companies knew each other, and last year MyBuddy started to build its own language-learning curriculum to add to its offerings. This effort seemed rather similar to the courses that Edwin built, says MyBuddy CEO and co-founder Ivan Crewkov.
“Edwin developed sophisticated adaptive learning technology for English as a foreign language,” says Crewkov. “With this technology, we can offer a personalized learning plan for each of our students, and we will be able to adapt these learning plans on the go.”
Currently, MyBuddy offers vocabulary, pronunciation and listening comprehension exercises tailored for English language learners ages 4 to 12. The user experience is designed much like a game, featuring the robotic avatar that gives verbal and pictorial prompts for children to practice speaking basic words, phrases and expressions. As children progress, they accumulate points and digital rewards.
The data that powers MyBuddy’s AI system comes from children’s voice data that the company accumulated in its early days, says Crewkov. He says the app currently does not collect children’s voice data for product development purposes.
Crewkov said he was inspired to start the company in 2017, after he sold his previous startup—which built AI voice technology—and moved his family from Siberia to California. As he watched his daughter struggle to learn English, he decided to apply his experience to create MyBuddy.
MyBuddy’s footprint is smaller than Edwin’s. But what it lacks in user numbers, it makes up for with paying subscribers. There are 17,000 of them, says Crewkov, who adds that the company generated more than $140,000 in revenue in January. Most of the users are spread across Europe, although the company has started to field inquiries from online schools and tutoring platforms.
With the addition of Edwin’s team, MyBuddy now has a headcount of 14 employees. MyBuddy has raised $1 million in funding to date.
The company will remain focused on young English language learners in other countries and those whose families recently immigrated to the U.S., who may not get opportunities to practice speaking at home, says Crewkov.
Founded in 2016, Edwin has raised two rounds of seed funding and graduated from Y Combinator, the tech startup accelerator program. Stavisky declined to disclose the total capital the company has raised, but said its biggest investors were General Catalyst and the Google Assistant Investments program, which backs startups that use Google’s AI voice technologies. The program’s head told EdSurge last year that it usually invests up to a few million dollars in each company.
AI-powered language-learning tools have recently attracted venture capital. Last year, Elsa raised $7 million in a round led by another Google AI startup fund, Gradient Ventures. Amira Learning scored $5 million—and a partnership with publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—to expand its reading and verbal assessments in schools. Like MyBuddy, both are based in San Francisco.