Tony Abrahams MAICD discovered the value of inclusive communication at high school. A friend was quadriplegic and needed an amanuensis (scribe) for assignments and exams. “He couldn’t write, but he could dictate what he was thinking. He was super-smart and I loved working with him,” says Abrahams. “Then my dad did a Master’s in biometric engineering trying to figure out how brainwaves could move a cursor. I remember at 14 being hooked up with electrodes, trying to use a computer with my brain. Those experiences gave me a big appreciation of making the world more accessible for people with disability.” Abrahams is now CEO of captioning service Ai-Media — “Ai” stands for “access inclusion” — which, as well as providing text on screen for television and video, aims to revolutionise education and business for deaf and hard-of-hearing people with live captions and transcripts powered by cloud and AI technologies.

In essence, Abrahams is replicating his early experiences as an amanuensis at massive scale. And the idea for the business started with a revelatory conversation at a cocktail party in 2002.

“My partner Alex [Jones] and I were at a party when we met Brian Walsh, who runs programming at Foxtel,” he recalls. “He asked if we had Foxtel and what did we like about it, and Alex said ‘I can’t understand a word of it. Tony likes it, but we can’t watch it together’. Brian replied, ‘Why not?’ and Alex goes, ‘You don’t have any captions and I’m deaf’. Then Brian invited us to do a presentation on the Monday. We didn’t know that what started as a consulting opportunity to Foxtel and Austar about a bunch of things being done badly in the industry would turn into a business.”

Deanne Weir GAICD, who was in the room for the presentation as a senior executive at Austar, remembers Tony making a passionate but clear and common-sense argument for captioning.

“He had me sold within two minutes,” she says. “He pointed out it didn’t make sense that free-to-air television has a lot of captioning, but pay TV — for which we were charging up to $100 a month — didn’t. Especially as our average audience was older and therefore having captions would attract more customers.”

Abrahams and Jones left the meeting with a mandate to find captioning solutions for the pay TV business. They surveyed participants in the Deaflympics on several options, including licensing US-spelling captions: “It opened up a lot more cost-effective options because we could license existing caption files,” says Abrahams. “We started with captions for all 180 episodes of Seinfeld then began exploring better ways of doing captions — including in real time.”

“Strong boards represent the communities they’re serving by having real diversity, which brings better perspectives and better ideas.” – Deanne Weir GAICD

Accessibility means inclusion

Weir was an early investor, seeing opportunities beyond licensing captions for pay TV, including the founders’ vision for AI-aided speech-to-text in real time. Although Ai-Media’s initial earnings came from providing captions for TV, the idea for live captions and transcripts excited investors even more: “Tony said, ‘It’s great you give deaf and hard-of-hearing people access to TV, but what if we can get rid of some of the barriers in real-life situations, such as education and employment?’” says Weir. “That really got me excited because until then, deaf people needed someone with sign language to interpret for them.”

In 2008, the business introduced “respeakers” to Australian schools. These gave deaf students real-time captions in English by repeating what is being said in the classroom into speech recognition software specifically trained to their voices. This method means they can more actively participate because they’re not deciphering sign language or lip reading. The following year, the business filed its first patent for a full-featured and massively scalable live-captioning product powered by emerging AI technologies.

It didn’t take long for Ai-Live to earn live-event contracts with Fox Sports, SkyNews and the Seven and Nine networks. A win on the ABC’s New Inventors accelerated interest in Ai-Live across the education, events and business-conferencing industries.

“Our first patent is still the core of our Live product to this day,” says Abrahams. “Technically, the AI we use is more constrained than most speech-recognition engines because for each event we have one respeaker — adding speaker attribution, audio descriptions and corrections in real time. The AI is trained to their unique voice print and therefore you get a much better quality result.”

“It’s delivering 99.5 per cent accuracy, which is what’s required for regulatory reasons for broadcast, and it’s absolutely the best-use case in education and the workplace,” adds Weir. “It’s making the world more accessible for people who can’t hear. That’s essential if you want a good society, classroom or business. When you have the technology and means to do it, it’s ludicrous and unfair to exclude people.”

Global growth

Since 2009, Ai-Media has invested $50m of private funding into scaling its platform globally and making it compliant with international data laws. In 2018, the company transitioned to secure and enormously scalable cloud hosting. These innovations won partnerships with some of the world’s biggest social media and online content brands, growing the company’s 2200-plus client base across broadcast, education, government and corporate markets.

“Our big focus now is organic growth, because the teams have the technology ready to go,” says Weir. “We could see in 2018–19 that the world was at the cusp of moving to video as the core communications tool. Because the industry is consolidating, it made sense for an IPO in 2020 to acquire other captioning businesses and their customer bases.”

Although the global COVID-19 pandemic and market slowdown pushed Ai-Media’s IPO plans until September 2020 (raising $65.5m), it also accelerated uptake of its Live platform. Organisations and individuals alike scrambled to adopt online video and conferencing every day while working, learning or relaxing at home.

Ai-Media strengthened its foothold in the US market by acquiring Alternative Communication Services in May 2020. This followed a $10.3m pre-IPO fundraise from investors including CVC Emerging Companies Fund and US tech investor Anzu Partners in December 2019.

“We’re building a business that is all about accessibility and what it comes down to is ensuring everyone gets to participate.” – Tony Abrahams MAICD

Building a board

“When CVC invested in that pre-IPO round, Jonathan Pearce joined the board,” says Weir. “The view was that this was the board we wanted to take into Ai-Media’s IPO.”

Other board members include Alison Loat from the $22b OPTrust in Canada, Sue Sanossian MAICD (ex-Austar) and John Martin MAICD (ex-Babcock & Brown). Weir says the reason Abrahams wanted a board was to get experienced help for his vision of delivering live captioning globally beyond broadcast. The board focuses on strategic priorities and growth targets including recent acquisitions of two more US companies (Caption IT and Caption Access). It also makes sure the business has its statutory ducks in a row across all international jurisdictions and the business behaves ethically.

“Having gone into the IPO, the board will obviously evolve to make sure we’re connected to the markets we’re serving,” says Weir. “Strong boards — and good organisations — represent the communities they’re serving by having real diversity, which brings better perspectives and better ideas.”

Ai-Media’s 1.2 million Facebook followers appear to agree. Visit the group online and you’ll see people from all walks of life talking about accessibility, social issues and the representation of people with disability across local and international media.

“We’re not flogging our product on there,” says Weir. “We’re talking about issues relevant to a lot of people and it’s really seen as a community service. Businesses and education institutions have found, particularly since COVID-19, that providing live captioning and transcripts helps improve comprehension for everyone in a meeting. It certainly helps those who aren’t native speakers of the language being spoken.”

Abrahams admits he’s matured as Ai-Media has grown — he was in his twenties when he and Alex Jones started the business — and one of the hardest lessons was accepting he had his blind spots. “Transitioning from entrepreneur of a startup to CEO of a growing global business was painful, mostly by virtue of my ignorance,” he says. “I was a Tasmanian devil sometimes, racing around trying to do everything. I’ve learned to listen to other people’s ideas and viewpoints more. We’re building a business that is all about accessibility and what it comes down to is ensuring everyone gets to participate.”

Keys to a positive chair/CEO working relationship

Demarcation: “You want to help the organisation be the best it can be and as a board member your job is to bring insight and guidance — although you shouldn’t be in the weeds every day trying to manage everything.” – Deanne Weir

Candour: “I see some people massage information for boards, but if you want good advice and counsel about an issue you can’t hold back the facts. Share the problem in its entirety so everyone has the same information to work with when attacking it. If a CEO can’t be frank with the chair, you have the wrong chair.” – Tony Abrahams

Early awareness: “The diversity of opinion and experience on the board can be useful for spotting issues before they explode because the board members have seen them before. So it’s important to raise issues early — even if they don’t seem like a priority now — because they could become major issues later on.” – Deanne Weir

Humility: “Sometimes, CEOs need to make unpopular decisions because at the end of the day, the business comes first. Early on, I was so focused on pushing ahead I didn’t notice the negative impact of my behaviour on those around me. Deanne as chair had to help me understand the need for stability as the business grew. It was quite challenging hearing that feedback at first, but it was necessary.” – Tony Abrahams