The Gdańsk man who brought US giant Amazon to Poland

After selling his text-to-speech technology to Amazon, the American giant moved its business to Poland.

People change the world in many different ways.

Some do it through politics and rhetoric, others use their art to inspire others, while some keep their head down, work hard and create something that makes the lives of hundreds of millions around the world a bit easier.

Łukasz Osowski falls into the latter category. He is a humble man and blushes at the notion, but his hard work and innovation has not only affected the daily life of millions around the world but led Amazon to be Poland’s largest American employer, creating over 15,000 jobs.

He told TFN: “As a teenager I was a fan of Space Odyssey 2000 and other sci-fi movies which have computers who speak with a nice, natural style. I first became interested in AI (artificial intelligence) and neural networks while studying at Gdansk University of Technology. That developed into applying neural networks in speech recognition and finally evolved into applying neural networks and other AI algorithms into ‘Text to Speech’ software.”

Born in Starogard Gdanski a small town about 50 km south of Gdansk, Osowski’s first job after graduating in 2000 was with a large Polish media organization where he grew his department from zero to seven people within a year. He developed his first commercial TTS software which worked as an add-on to an internet browser. But he knew he wanted his own company and after gaining experience he established, IVO software, with two friends.

The 42-year-old said: “While I was in my fourth year at university I did a psychological assessment test, the results showed I was a good candidate to run my own business. After gaining experience I established my own firm with two friends, Artur and Michał. We had no money and worked long days, desperate to succeed.”

Due to the lack of funds at the beginning, one of the trio left to gain a steadier income. Łukasz Osowski and Michał Kaszczuk stayed the course, working long days, in the belief that they could deliver something revolutionary. The duo had a steep learning curve when it came to running a business though, Kaszczuk had joined the company straight from university and while Osowski had managed a team before, he had the luxury of working in a large company with a departments to take care of the duties he now had to do himself.

“These early challenges required a lot of discipline. It meant we had to learn new things, put ourselves in difficult, uncomfortable situations but it was a great challenge and we learnt a lot. Early in business it is very important to be frugal, to understand your budget and stick to it. A penny saved is a penny earned,” he said.

The duo embraced the challenge, regularly working 12 hour days and even outside the office, while socializing their conversations always ended up back about IVO software.

“We had a steep learning curve at the beginning. We had to learn everything about the market, management, business development, finding funds and this was all on top of the technical side of the software. This was our biggest challenge though, we wanted to build the best text to speech technology in the world. It took us six years to finally be recognized as the best Text to Speech technology provider but we did this and it was confirmed during the Blizzard Challenge when we beat industry giants Microsoft and IBM, as well as some of the most prestigious technology universities from around the world.”

The company won the Blizzard Challenge in 2006, 2007 and 2009. In 2011 the company changed their name from IVO software to IVONA, the name of the voice used in their software. The voice is not a recording of a person but completely computer generated. This is also true of Alexa, the voice assistant from Amazon that evolved out of IVONA.

Osowski said: “The decision to sell was one of the hardest decisions of my life. There were other offers, as well, but there were many factors to consider. In the end I am delighted with how things turned out. Michał and I went onto work for Amazon for over two years and created an Amazon Development Centre in Gdansk. Now some of the greatest innovations that happen at Amazon start in Poland.”

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