Three University of Waterloo Grads Aim to Disrupt How News is Consumed with Umano

Tucked away in the back office of a San Francisco insurance company, SoThree is hard at work promoting and improving their latest creation, Umano, a mobile app that brings news articles to life with the help of voice actors.

Launched in October 2012 by three Toronto natives and University of Waterloo grads, Umano seeks to disrupt the way people, especially commuters, experience the news.  Each day, users are offered a curated selection of articles to choose from in a variety of categories ranging from entrepreneurship and technology to lifestyle and science.  With the help of voice actors sourced from all over the world (including Canada and the U.K.), news of the day is brought to life and delivered straight to your ear buds no matter where you are.

With resumes listing Google, Yahoo!, Pixar and Bloomberg as former places of employment, co-founders Prabhdeep Gill, Anton Lopyrev, and Ian Mendiola migrated to Silicon Valley to chase the startup dream. What they believe sets the app apart from traditional radio programs, podcasts and other news applications is the amalgamation of high-quality journalism in a convenient delivery system.

“When we were started building Umano, we considered using tech as speech but it was too robotic, we wanted the human touch,” Prabhdeep Gill, co-founder of Umano, told Techvibes. “With the help of Craigslist Toronto, which requires no upfront fee for posting a job, we secured our first two voice actors.”

Earlier this week, SoThree launched Umano Premium, a new service available in iOS 7 and Android for users looking to enhance their Umano experience. Improvements include:

  • Unlimited offline downloading of all articles;
  • Unlimited playlist sizes, instead of a 20-article cap;
  • Playlist reordering with touch-and-drag controls;
  • One-click playlist generator, which uses a listener’s history to create personalized playlists;
  • and a news flash feature, which allows listeners to hear the latest breaking news headlines throughout the day

For listeners who enjoy falling asleep to the app, the Premium service also includes an easy-to-use sleep timer. In addition, Premium listeners can customize their app by choosing one of five jingles to sound before Umano begins playing an article.

Current listeners will be given a complimentary two-month trial of the Premium product, which is now available on iTunes and Google Play for $3.99 per month.

To date, the read-me-the-news app has attracted hundreds of thousands of users and 10 million listens. The team is now comprised of five employees with 25 voice actors around the world ready and waiting for their next assignment.  In April 2013, the startup secured seed funding close to $925,000 from Digital Garage, Birchmere Ventures and a slew of angel investors.

Although Umano has been largely embraced, having been recently named one of the 50 best Android apps of 2013 by TIME, the road to success wasn’t easy. When Gill, Lopyrev and Mendiola started building the app, initial talks with VCs proved unsuccessful. So the trio decided to abandon funding talks in favour of setting a personal goal of 5,000 users by the end of 2011. They agreed that if the goal was reached, they would continue with development.

To get things moving, Mendiola sweet-talked conductors in San Francisco’s Caltrain station to allow them to hand out flyers in the passenger cars to promote the news app. Although their user base increased by 2,000, it was not enough to meet their goal. Months before the deadline, SoThree caught a break when both iTunes and Google Play decided to feature the app. By December 1, the team had reached 5,300 users.

“After getting featured, we started getting users from all over the world including Japan and Brazil,” added Gill. “Surprisingly, they were using Umano not only to catch up on the news but to learn English – they were reading along with our voice actors.”

Umano is definitely an app to watch and the team is determined to continue adding more and more playlist management features as well as establish a monetization strategy to ensure innovation continues on.