Drawing on skills fostered through a range of Brandeis coursework and life experience, a team of four Brandeis students made it to the final round of the Hult Prize Boston Regional competition on March 15-16. Graduate students Max Brodsky (Heller), Abigail Montine (Heller), Liza Korotkova (IBS) and R Matthews ’19 pitched their project, Talk, an app that would connect interpreters with people who need interpretation services in real time through a video call.

“Talk is a platform that employs multilingual young adults to serve as interpreters using a video-remote interpreting service for businesses, nonprofits, governments and emergency services,” Brodsky said in an interview with the Justice that included Montine and Korotkova. Brodsky developed the idea for the project with Montine to address the theme of this year’s Hult competition: youth unemployment.

The Hult Prize Foundation is “the world’s biggest engine for the launch of for-good, for-profit startups emerging from [universities],” according to their website. Universities can hold initial Hult Prize On Campus competitions, whose winners then join other teams at over 25 Hult Prize Regional Summits. The regional winners travel to the Hult Castle in the United Kingdom to participate in the Hult Prize Accelerator Program, and the top six teams pitch their ideas in front of the United Nations, competing for $1 million of startup funding, per the Boston competition’s Welcome Guide.

Brodsky previously worked as a director of a small nonprofit in Waltham, an experience which showed him the importance of interpreters. He said he “really struggled to meet the needs of the families” due to language barriers.

More recently, Brodsky has connected with Kaytie Dowcett ’99, Heller ’15, executive director of the Waltham Partnership for Youth, Inc., whose Language Access for Civic Engagement program includes a youth interpreter program, per its website.

“Looking at what Waltham Partnership is doing … in a very on-the-ground way in Waltham — [we’re] thinking through, ‘How could we expand this idea of using youth as interpreters in a way that’s replicable and scalable?’” Montine said. “The best way to really do that is an app.”

Montine recently spent two years teaching English in Ecuador and has worked with nonprofits as well, experiences which also taught her the importance of interpretation services.

Montine and Brodsky are both in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management’s Master of Business Administration program, with a concentration in Children, Youth and Families. They found out about this year’s Hult Prize competition in class and began brainstorming the Talk project together. They posted a description of the project on a spreadsheet, which was created by the Brandeis Hult competition organizers and later shared with Brandeis International Business School students in an attempt to foster connections across the graduate schools. This worked for the Talk team because Korotkova, a grad student at IBS who has worked as a Russian interpreter, reached out to join their team. Korotkova is pursuing a Masters in International Economics and Finance.

“When you’re bilingual, and you can use that skill, and then also get paid for it, it’s a great opportunity,” Korotkova said, describing what drew her to the Talk project. She developed the business plan and financials for the project, drawing on her IBS coursework.

Their team first pitched Talk at the Brandeis University 2019 Hult Challenge, which they won. They then participated in the Brandeis SPARKTank competition, winning a grant to develop their project. With the SPARKTank money, they were able to partner with a curriculum group, Cross Cultural Communication Systems, Inc., to help develop their interpretation training and to test the project with Waltham-area youth interpreters.

These first competitions helped the team grow as a cohesive unit and to develop a “clearer and clearer” pitch going into the Boston Hult competition, Montine explained. They learned what questions to expect; a frequent issue was needing to explain the difference between Talk, which provides real-time spoken interpretation services, and Google Translate, which provides written translations.

The group was also often asked what the need for the product was and who would use the service. Montine explained that she and Brodsky learned from their work in nonprofits and education that the need for interpreters “almost doesn’t need to be stated,” but they realized that if the competitions’ judges “hadn’t worked in that space, the need wasn’t as clear.”

The team intends for Talk to be used in situations where interpreters are often needed, such as to communicate with nonprofits’ clients and emergency responders, and in educational or legal settings — although it could also benefit casual travelers. Drawing on her own work with a nonprofit that served homeless people in New York, Montine explained, “Smaller nonprofits … might have staff who speak Spanish, but beyond that, you can’t afford to have a staff that speaks every language that your client pool might.” Talk helps address this issue by providing translators on-demand.

A week before the team competed at the Hult regionals, Matthews, a double major in African and African American Studies and Computer Science, joined the team, per an email from Matthews to the Justice. Matthews explained that he agreed to join because he has friends who do interpretation work for free. Using an online program called Figma, Matthews created digital mockups, or wire frames, of what the Talk app would look like. In the same email, he explained that he created a home screen, a dashboard and a video call screen for Talk, drawing on the design of apps like Uber and FaceTime as well as things he has learned in the Brandeis class Human-Computer Interaction.

At the Boston competition, the Talk team competed against teams from all over the world, per their website. “There were some brilliant people and teams in that space and as cliché as it sounds, I just know there are some people who are going to make a real difference in the world,” Matthews wrote.

After every team pitched their ideas, everyone involved in the competition gathered in an auditorium to find out who had placed in the top six, advancing to the final round. As the judges announced each team, the team had to go up and immediately give their pitch to the crowd, Brodsky explained. Their team was in the top six. 

“It’s the biggest presentation I’ve probably ever done,” Montine said. Although they were nervous, Korotkova said that they “didn’t miss a beat” during their pitch.

“We really had our pitch down,” Montine agreed. “When it’s that automatic — that’s the point you need to be at when you’re called in front of 200 people to pitch.”

Although the team did not win regionals and advance to the next stage of the Hult Prize, their reflections on the experience were positive. “It wasn’t discouraging to not win,” Korotkova said, explaining that they still have a lot of opportunities in the Boston area to pitch their idea and get funding. During the interview, all three of them emphasized how validating it was to hear positive feedback from Hult judges and competitors, as well as from the mentors who have supported them throughout their journey.

The team expressed how helpful Dowcett has been in helping them develop their idea. Additionally, Peter Kant ’94 and Leo Guyshan ’10 have mentored the team since the SPARKTank competition, providing invaluable information and support. Bozhanka Vitanova MA ’16, Brandeis’ National Science Foundation I-Corps instructor, and Rebecca Menapace, the associate provost for innovation, have also supported the project.

Looking to the future of Talk, Brodsky said they are going to “take a second and breathe” and to “refocus on academics.” Montine explained that they have already done “a lot of the legwork,” including developing the business plan and the financials and getting a curriculum partner. The next step, Korotkova said, would be to pitch it to other organizations and get funding to actually create the project. “We have this thing ready to go, if and when we want to continue with it,” Montine said.

—Editor's Note: The headline of this article was changed to say "interpretation" instead of "translation" to better reflect the app's purpose.