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Posted on Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Manhattan software company opens R&D operation in downtown Ann Arbor

By Julie Edgar

Manhattan-based LanguageMate, which develops software to bridge cultural and language barriers in health care settings, plans to expand its research-and-development presence in Ann Arbor after temporarily locating in a downtown business incubator.

"This is the kind of environment we thrive in, and we like to be surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and talent,'' says Bill Z. Tan, who founded LanguageMate in 2002 and last year was named one of Crain's New York Business' 40 Under 40 Rising Stars.


Bill Tan founded Manhattan-based LanguageMate, which plans to expand its Ann Arbor R&D operation.

Photo courtesy of LanguageMate

Tan's brother graduated from the University of Michigan, so he was familiar with Ann Arbor. But he said the company made the leap to open an Ann Arbor office after discussions with U-M's Business Engagement Center and economic development group Ann Arbor SPARK.

LanguageMate is temporarily leasing low-cost space in SPARK's incubator on Liberty Street while Tan negotiates a lease with Ann Arbor-based real estate firm McKinley Inc. for permanent space downtown.

LanguageMate, which has 50 full-time employees, expects to hire seven to eight full-time employees in Ann Arbor within a year. Tan said he's seeking a general manager, a chief technology officer and software and content developers.

"LanguageMate deciding to open an office in Ann Arbor is especially gratifying as an example of the growing entrepreneurial eco-system," said Daryl Weinert, executive director of the Engagement Center, in an email.

Tan's company grew out of his experience seeing his immigrant relatives struggling to navigate a complicated health care system with limited English-language skills. He also found research showing that in New York City alone, schoolchildren miss tens of thousands of school days taking relatives to appointments in order to translate for them. LanguageMate's products are designed to be both user-friendly and to facilitate direct communication between patient and provider.

Government grants have fueled the company's growth. The company has secured $20 million in funding from the U.S. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program over the last 10 years. The firm has a number of products, including Canopy, a Web-based, Spanish-language learning program designed for healthcare providers, and an audio-enabled mobile application that translates medical language into a patient's native language.

LanguageMate will launch the app, which so far has English and Spanish applications, at a conference of the American Association of Medical Colleges in Denver next week. Tan says the app will eventually be able to translate 10 languages, including Mandarin and French.

Canopy is in use in various large academic medical centers in New York and in medical schools, including in Kansas and Puerto Rico, he says. A goal is developing a medical English-language program for Canopy that can be used by foreign-born healthcare professionals and providers in other countries, Tan says.

In the meantime, Tan hired Ankush Sharma, a recent graduate of U-M's School of Public Health, as operations manager. Sharma, 27, is a California native who found Tan through a jobs network at the school.

"My public health background points to my interest in social justice rather than the bottom line, about addressing health disparities rather than making money," Sharma says.

Tan isn't sure yet which projects he'll start in Ann Arbor. He asks that anyone wishing to apply for a job do so through LanguageMate's website.

Julie Edgar is a freelance writer for


Robot Charles

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 8:34 p.m.

A little research shows that LanguageMate's first product was a Spanish language course geared toward the health care process in America. Seems to be a Spanish 101 for doctors program that is web based. The company has shied away from venture capital because they would demand results in less than a few years where as Mr. Tan says the products can take several years to develop. In terms of Google's offerings they seem to have ended there HealthSpeaks project but will continue to offer archival and translation tools for health care. They don't seem to have a Spanish language course developed for health care workers. I think that any new jobs in Ann Arbor are great, but the head count sounds strange: a CTO and a manager with just four or five other employees. The operations manager says he's for "social justice." Well, I'm not sure how a business plan is derived from that but hey whatever works.


Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 6:05 p.m.

I agree with alot of the comments above. Assuming success and once that $20 million in federal grants drops out of everyone's short term memory, it will be the usual story. A race to offshore every position possible will occur, except for afew executives and sales anchors.

Ron Granger

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 5:08 p.m.

Google is currently the dominant "gorilla" in the translation business. I can't imagine investing in any translation business unless they had a really great story about how they will compete with Google. They could easily move into this space. Or lean startups could use their platform to launch competing products. Not surprisingly, that's already being done.

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 5:22 p.m.

yes, and google also has a little presence here, hmm, another good networking all the resources of the UM School of Public Health and UM med-center, who can clearly get grants to study care delivery processes... there are some nexus elements here, I'm assuming, to attract a Crain's NY "rising under 40" hero ;-)

Kara H

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 3:13 p.m.

I'm going to differ with the commenters thus far. This company has a great idea and niche. My aging, native English-speaking parents have increasingly been in the health system lately, and even the English-to-English of medical language to what the rest of us masses speak is hard enough. I'm constantly watching and heading off miscommunications for them based on misunderstandings of the terminology being used by medical staff--some of which, especially with regard to meds, can be life threatening. This problem is compounded by orders of magnitude if the patient and provider aren't both native speakers of the same language. Kudos to LanguageMate for developing a suite of tools and training to help mitigate this. Welcome to Ann Arbor.

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 5:16 p.m.

ah, but I have (in some ways)...and my point is that I don't believe *they* have done this research for this product... I never said "it" (a program aimed at improving provider/patient communication and at reducing mis-conveyance of info that could result in life-threatening errors) *couldn't* be done, just that if they have done this, I'm guessing they'd advertise the fact, and not instead what this product actually sounds like it is...i.e., an elaborate translation program fed with medical terms that don't usually get included in the pop-up google ones, for instance. Not meaning to sound like I'm pontificating, And my 'research' into their website indicates to me that they have not created such a program, which is why I asked whether you had some clue to the contrary for me:-)

Kara H

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 3:45 p.m.

Sorry, you get to do your own research. I'm glad that someone is out there trying to solve this problem and not merely pontificating that it can't be.

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 3:26 p.m.

If this product could actually aid in the sorts of miscommunications that happen *within English*, and that lead to some terrible 'errors' in our healthcare system as you rightly point out!!-- well, now...*that* would be a very worthwhile product! If you have any evidence that this program can accomplish this, then *do* share, because I think the linguistics-research community would be very very fascinated :-) It could be that there have been huge advances in the field of artificial intelligence and language processing since last I looked --I'd welcome that link :-)

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 2:39 p.m.

But you know what might an *excellent* future application for this software enterprise...and one that will *also* likely be funded by our tax money?! Easing the out-sourcing of medical *diagnosis* services, woohoo! Other nations will churn out perfectly able medical-school-educated staff, and they won't even need to fully learn English in order to communicate with the staff here in the fantastic is that?! These programs will allow for radiologists, pathologists, etc. to be able to just write/speak their findings into their computers in their native languages, and presto! , there it is 'translated' into English back here! How likely do you think it will be that the main direction of translation will be from English to Whatever, except in the ordering of outsourced tasks?! Will these "foreign-born health professionals" be taking tuition from US professionals?! Maybe... And then providing lower-cost services back to US-based health-care operations?! That seems so very very likely to me... And how likely the tax-payers see the cost-savings achieved?! Not so much...

Ron Granger

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 2:30 p.m.

The company was founded in 2002 and only translates one language, Spanish. Hmm. I see two common patterns in the start-up community: The first is "failing fast". You make it happen, FAST. You are either very successful, or you fail and move on. There is very little middle ground. The company must turn a profit and be sustainable. It often helps that the founders are hungry and need the money. The second pattern is riding it and milking it. You keep getting funding. You keep drawing those big salaries. The next release is always around the corner. Many of these companies don't even talk about profit. Sometimes their leaders are people who don't need the money - they're actually wealthy. So they don't need to work. They aren't hungry. The company is merely their hobby. It's their pet project. They sell dreams, not product. Profit is not a priority. These types of companies are very boring to work for and they have trouble attracting top talent. One of these patterns is where Dilbert cartoons are made. I wish them luck on releasing their next 9 languages, making a profit, and paying off their investors.

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 2:42 p.m.

I think Ann Arbor is an interesting choice for expansion, because I think the connections here might mean a 'niche-y' little product that can do at least reasonably well from large-institutional buying, if you know what I mean. Don't forget, Gov Snyder wants Michigan to become a biomedical hub or whatever term he used recently... I'd add "trend-watcher" and "good sniffer of opportunities for otherwise meh offerings" to your pattern list ;-)


Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 2:28 p.m.

Julie Edgar should have asked Bill Tan if his decision to expand in Ann Arbor was influenced by the new Dreiseitl sculpture outside the municipal building which City Council believes will bring economic value to our city.


Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 7:38 p.m.

It all contributes toward making Ann Arbor a vibrant, desirable place to work and live. If they wanted to locate in a nondescript freeway-offramp speculative office building, where everything that makes life worth living is value-engineered out and they're likely to spend a quarter of their HR budget recruiting and training top-notch talent, they had plenty of empty office complexes around the country from which they could have selected. Instead, they decided it made good business sense to locate where the rent is significantly higher, precisely because those they want to attract and retain can afford to live anywhere but place a high value on things like public art, parks, culture, and a vibrant social scene.

Ron Granger

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 2:18 p.m.

Um, yeah. $20 million dollars invested, and it only translates between English and Spanish? Oh - I see now. It's $20 million dollars of YOUR TAX MONEY invested. That explains it. What will the cost be to do their future 10 languages? Why not just have actual people translating from remote locations, connected by some technology.. Oh, I don't know.. Phone? Chat? Though such a tried and true approach won't get you tens of millions of government funding.

Alex Fair

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 12:16 p.m.

Hi Ron, LanguageMate has at least 5 other products I know of, two of which are presenting at my Health / Hospitals 2.0 event in New York next week (see <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> or go to <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> to see all they have listed publicly.) I agree, 20M for Canopy (which is a cool product too) would be ridiculous and this point needed to be clarified. Canopy is turning the corner from getting a government small business investment grant to commercial success, employing more Americans, and generally doing what it is supposed to with our tax dollars. In response to Fred's comment below: It is noteworthy as well, that when funded by NIH grants, one of the stipulations is to not offshore the resultant jobs. As a serial healthcare entrepreneur, adviser to many startups, and incubator mentor, I personally prefer and recommend that people keep their coders in the US. This is largely because you can get great US-based programmers for reasonable fees who understand the cultural context of the application, reducing the learning curve. Things that are obvious to Americans are foreign to most offshore developers. Apparently Bill feels the same way, as indicated by choosing Ann Arbor rather than Xian. Whether we like it or not, the US has an enormous influx of patients, physicians and nurses from around the world. Enabling clarity in communications aids the assimilation process, which is inevitable. How many 3rd generation Americans do you know who spoke any of their grandparent's native tongue? We were all foreigners once. If folks want to start a health 2.0 chapter in Ann Arbor please feel free to reach out to me. I am happy to connect you to my friend who is in charge of that. Health 2.0 NYC is a volunteer organization of 1250+ healthcare entrepreneurs in New York. It is a local chapter of the national Health 2.0 Conference supporting Healthcare Innovation. It looks like innovation is alive and well in Ann Arbor. Rock on! Alex Fair <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 1:57 p.m.

Rather then printing everything in Spanish, French,Chinese etc, we should be able to only print things in English (our National Language) and almost everyone will be able to understand it. Way to go!

say it plain

Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 11:37 a.m.

Wow, talented grant-writers and networkers can really make something out of very little ;-) This sounds like elaborate translation program lol... with some guided questioning 'designed' to 'bridge the gap' between someone who needs to talk about, say, pain and physiology in one language, with someone who sits on the other side of the healthcare service 'relationship' and speaks another... But heck if nobody has tried doing this with a software product before, someone was bound to start ;-)