Making the World’s Video Content Global
Publishers of video and audio content now have a much easier way to reach a global audience and overcome language barriers. London-based startup Papercup deploys generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology that delivers humanlike multilingual voice dubbing—employing a “human-in-the-loop” approach to use the best of both human and machine intelligence —at a fraction of the cost of traditional dubbing methods.
Problems with Traditional Dubbing
Traditionally, video content has been made available in foreign markets by dubbing dialogue from voice actors who are native speakers of the local language. For content with high-quality production values, like television series, that process can require auditioning as many as 30 actors to identify the right talent to fill 10 speaking roles, explains Jesse Shemen, Papercup’s co-founder and CEO (pictured below). Once the actors are selected, a sound studio must be rented, and many hours are needed to record the dialogue and edit it all together.
The emergence of generative AI offers a much more affordable alternative to developing translated content. Still, as anyone who has ever laughed at the monotone voice prompts from their car’s GPS knows, computer-generated voices usually sound dull and lifeless. Papercup’s co-founder, Jiameng Gao, developed a solution to that problem.
Lifelike Synthetic Voices
While studying computational linguistics and speech processing, as well as machine learning and information engineering, at the University of Cambridge, Jiameng focused on researching technology that could recreate someone’s voice and deliver content they spoke in another language. Jiameng partnered with his friend, Jesse, who had a background in finance and entrepreneurship, to find clients who could take advantage of this capability.
Today, it is the quality of Papercup’s synthetic voices and its use of professional translators as part of the localization process that differentiates its services from other AI-generated voice translations. The voices Papercup produces sound lifelike and expressive because its technology can capture natural speaking rhythms and tones, and even the nuances of an original speaker’s voice. Renowned chef and restaurateur Jamie Oliver, a Papercup client, now does not have to go into a sound studio to rerecord cooking demonstrations he originally delivered in English. For example, Spanish speakers can learn his recipe for making a chocolate brownie by watching a video of Jamie at work and listening to a Papercup-generated synthetic voiceover that conveys all of Oliver’s trademark energy and enthusiasm.
When Papercup’s translation capabilities are deployed, users can ensure that the right emotions—everything from happiness or sadness to anger or doubt—are conveyed. Other factors that could influence vocal tones, like a speaker’s gender and age, can also be incorporated.
“The quality of the synthetic voice is crucial because if the dubbing is below par, audiences simply won’t watch the content,” says Michael Graninger, a managing partner at Sands Capital Ventures. “Papercup’s technology truly stands out for its ability to match the expressiveness and emotive qualities of the original speakers.”
Lifelike Synthetic Voices
To date, content featuring translations by Papercup has reached over 500 million people, notes Jesse. But that is only a tiny fraction of the vast quantity of video and audio content generated every year. That includes roughly 5 million podcasts on Spotify and the 720,000 hours of content that are uploaded daily to YouTube. Every single day, 720,000 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube.1 Papercup already has major media companies as clients, including the Sky Group. Sky, Europe’s largest media company and pay-TV broadcaster, is also an investor in Papercup. With Papercup’s help, the news website Business Insider, originally published in English, reached 700 million Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the 12 months ending September 2023.3 Bloomberg Media also uses Papercup to translate its news videos into Spanish.
Beyond news, entertainment content, and podcasts, educational and professional development content also represents a huge market for Papercup. “There are now more than 90,000 TED talks available, 3,000 courses on the online training platform Coursera, and 30,000 classes on the online learning community Skillshare, as just a few more examples,” says Jesse.3
Looking Beyond Silicon Valley to the U.K.
As Papercup sought investors, Jesse was grateful to have a U.S.-based firm among the interested parties. “Historically, U.S. investors have been underrepresented among the startups in the United Kingdom,” he says. “Mike and the team at Sands Capital were one of the first U.S. venture capital firms to recognize the potential here.”
Mike says his interest in the U.K. market dates back to 2014, when a robust tech startup culture was just beginning to emerge. “At the time, I was with another firm, and we recognized that, with the talented minds coming out of universities like Cambridge and Oxford, there would be considerable opportunities,” he says. “I continued to seek possibilities in the U.K. and other European markets when I came to Sands Capital in 2018. It takes a lot of time and research, meeting people and building relationships, as you search for venture capital investment opportunities. Still, that effort is often rewarded.”
As Mike explains, “The U.K. and European markets can be a much less-expensive environment to operate in than Silicon Valley, both in terms of startups’ valuations and the level of compensation needed to attract top talent to these firms.” Finding businesses like Papercup, he says, further demonstrates the benefits of taking a more global approach to the investment process.
A Rewarding Partnership
Jesse emphasized that Sands Capital has been a valuable ongoing partner for the firm. The Sands Capital team fully understands how important that support is to a new startup, says Mike. “When a startup has a great technology but not much commercial traction, it’s vital to be able to make introductions and help bring prospective customers in the door,” he says. “We knew that Papercup had a truly differentiated technology that delivered a valuable business solution. We were able to make a number of introductions that resulted in high-quality business development opportunities for Papercup.”
Jesse was grateful to discover that the high level of support from Sands Capital remained steadfast even through challenging times. “When the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank sent shudders across the venture capital landscape, the team at Sands Capital worked around the clock to help ensure that there wouldn’t be any disruption in the funding provided to their partners,” he says.
Jesse’s leadership talents have made a big impression on the staff at Sands Capital. “As advanced as AI has become, there are still many technological challenges to overcome,” says Mike. “The leader of a company harnessing these capabilities must be prepared to deal with the inevitable two steps back after every step forward. Jesse possesses all the necessary patience, energy, and determination to persist through the nonlinear progress an innovative technology can make.”
A 100-fold Growth Opportunity
Given the volume of audio and content constantly being generated by creators around the world, it’s perhaps a surprise that as of 2017, potentially 99 percent of the content posted online hasn’t been translated into other languages.4 The cost of traditional dubbing with voice actors and the low quality of other types of AI-generated voice dubbing probably accounts for the fact that only 1 percent of that content has been made available in more than one language. That low penetration rate means there is a 100-fold growth opportunity for this market. Papercup’s ability to deliver fast, efficient, and high-quality translations gives it the potential to be on the leading edge of the effort to help content publishers reach a global audience.
1 Rohit Shewale, “53 Podcast Statistics: Listeners, Growth & Trends (2023),” DemandSage.com, September 28, 2023, https://www.demandsage.com/podcast-statistics/ Rohit Shewale, “YouTube Statistics For 2023 (Demographics & Usage),” DemandSage.com, September 5, 2023, https://www.demandsage.com/youtube-stats/.
2 Papercup presentation: Making content watchable in any language. September 2023. https://www.beautiful.ai/player/-NRdxulxWOVtkrGV9VUX/Papercup-Media-September-2023.
3 Jesse Shemen interview with Sands Capital and article posted by Shemen to LinkedIn.
4 Papercup: https://www.papercup.com/about-us
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The series, Partners for Growth, features profiles of founders of portfolio companies that represent a subset of Sands Capital portfolio holdings and are meant to illustrate the types of businesses in which we typically invest before they make an initial public offering. The series uses rotation whereby companies are selected to highlight different sectors and growth industries. The founders featured in this series agreed to participate and have approved their stories prior to publishing. Compensation was not provided to participants; however, Jesse Shemen can reuse the content with Sands Capital’s permission. Usage rights to the content featured are as of November 14, 2023, and are subject to change.
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