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LiRA, a developer of lip-reading technology for voiceless individuals, has won the $25,000 first-place prize in the Covintus Tech Tank pitch competition, a technology-focused accelerator designed to groom startup founders.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – LiRA, a technology company created by a group of UNC students, won the first place prize in the Covintus Tech Tank pitch competition, securing $25,000 for the startup. LiRA started in E(I) Lab – an entrepreneurship education program in the UNC School of Pharmacy – and originated from the experience that founder and CEO Andrew Prince, MD, had as a UNC Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery resident working with voiceless patients.

After people lose their ability to speak, methods like writing notes are slow and often frustrating. LiRA gives them their voice back through tracking that reads their lip movements. By developing easy-to-use lip-reading communication, the company is working to alleviate the handicaps in voiceless individuals impacted by voice disorders, laryngectomee, tracheostomy and more. By restoring communication between aphonic or voiceless patients and their providers and caregivers, LiRA is helping to raise the standard of medical care.

“Execution is an ongoing task. We started with the smallest possible version of the lip-reading problem, and incremental improvements have helped us win opportunities like Covintus,” said Alison Schaefer, LiRA’s chief technology officer, and a 4th year PhD student in the joint UNC/NCSU biomedical engineering department. “This will enable us to grow our team and improve our capabilities faster than ever.”

The Covintus Tech Tank pitch competition on August 17 was the culmination of the 10-week Covintus Tech Tank, a technology-focused accelerator designed to “savify” startup founders. For successful completion of the accelerator, each competing startup received $10,000; together with the additional $10,000 and $25,000 pitch competition prize money, Covintus handed out a total of $85,000 to the 2021 Tech Tank cohort. The award funding is matching credit applied towards software development, UI/UX design and/or technical advisory support and consulting with Covintus.

“Tech Tank has been an incredible learning experience, affording us a deep dive into software development,” Prince said. “This experience has already improved our collaborations with various consultants, and it’s certainly set us up to move forward more confidently as a startup. The matching credit we received will allow us to further our collaboration with Covintus in machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision resources.”

Members of the 2021 Tech Tank cohort included D.C.-based All Bets, Denver-based House of Trade, Boston-based Local Food Stuff, Richmond-based Nessle, and Chapel Hill-based LiRA. Nessle, an online directory connecting new and expectant parents with perinatal resources, was awarded the $10,000 second-place prize.

In the pitch competition, an independent panel of judges evaluated each cohort member’s five-minute pitch, asked questions of the founders, and scored them accordingly. The judges included Chris Trebour, president of Covintus; John Espey, CEO and co-founder of Defiance Ventures; and Blue Crump, an entrepreneur and former director at the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation.

Through Covintus Tech Tank, Covintus has pledged $1 million in development and support enabling startups to achieve success and high growth potential. The cohort featured expert-led virtual sessions advising cohort participants on how to be fluent in digital product decision-making partner optimization, development processes and methodologies, as well as protecting intellectual property.

LiRA’s leadership also includes Chief Design Officer Dina Yamaleyeva, a UNC biomedical engineering PhD candidate, and Chief Operating Officer Nga Nguyen, a UNC medical and public health student.

To participate in their research, you can volunteer to take part in a study that will help develop their lip-reading tool. All you have to do is sign up, and record a “selfie” style video of yourself reading provided sentences, which you will then electronically upload. It only takes 3-5 minutes, and Prince and his team hope to have 15,000 people take part in this research study.