Nuance’s Seattle Office: The ‘Other Guys’ from Tegic and Their Fellow Startup Vets Build A Mobile Innovation Hub

6/16/11Follow @curtwoodward

Brad Bargen knows a thing or two about being acquired—he’s actually been through it five times, dating back to General Motors’ 1985 deal for Hughes Aircraft. In the latest phase of his career, Bargen is a leader in Nuance Communications’ mobile R&D hub in Seattle, one of the nation’s most longstanding and vibrant innovation centers for the wireless industry.

Bargen joined Nuance (NASDAQ: NUAN) in 2007, when the Burlington, MA-based speech-recognition company acquired Tegic Communications from AOL for $265 million. Through that deal, Nuance nabbed the keys to the widely used T9 predictive text technology—software that allowed mobile phones with traditional keypads to predict which words users are trying to string together.

It was a big buy for Nuance, and not the last in the Seattle area. The following year, Nuance bought Bellevue, WA’s SnapIn Software, a maker of software for automating mobile customer support, for about $180 million in stock. In 2009, Nuance bought Jott, a speech-to-text startup founded by former Microsofties, for an undisclosed sum. The Nuance Seattle team recently moved into expansive new digs near Pioneer Square, and is looking to expand again—surely one of the reasons they invited the media to drop by and say hi, which I did recently.

Bargen serves as vice president of product development, overseeing text input and customer-service efforts. He’s got an easy laugh, but makes a serious point when he reminds the team that Nuance has put a lot of eggs into its Seattle basket. “I tell people jokingly that we’re the billion-dollar site. It’s pretty easy to get to $1 billion if you start adding up the acquisitions in this building,” he said. “I remind the team of the investment made in the minds in this building, and the building itself, is just a huge commitment.”

Nuance, of course, isn’t the only shop in town counting on Tegic veterans for their core team. Mobile-software startup Swype is one of Seattle’s most-discussed early stage companies, catching the attention of investors and national media. Its product allows users to “type” on a touchscreen keyboard by sliding their fingertip from letter to letter, rather than tapping on each individual key—although Swype recently announced that it was adding old-school tapping to its offering.

Nuance has approached this from the other direction, starting with its XT9 predictive “tapping” product and adding the finger-sliding T9 Trace feature last year. This year, Nuance followed that update with the even more feature-packed Flex T9, which adds voice-to-text to the mix along with tapping, letter-to-letter tracing, and the ability to draw letters or characters in a handwriting style (particularly important in Asian markets).

During our sit-down, Bargen gave me a quick history lesson on the evolution of the T9 technology to its present forms, what he sees for the future of the industry, and the interesting work of mashing up hard-core technology with human culture by studying language around the world.

But one of the first things he pointed out was a distinction he’s noticed from working at startups on one hand, and a company the size of Nuance: The gap between invention and innovation can be large.

Bargen said he thinks of invention as essentially “coming up with something cool. But innovation is getting that out to a bunch of people so that it affects the market. You can be inventive in your garage, but it’s harder to be innovative unless you have the machine to take it all the way to the end and get it on devices and things.” And that’s a roadblock he recalls running into at Tegic.

“We could invent, but we could not innovate. We had demos, but we could never get them out there and we didn’t really have much credibility when it came to talking to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and things about speech. But when we came into Nuance, we really started with this notion that we were going to transform the way Nuance put together products on the device,” Bargen said. “And now, … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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