Over 60 senior executives involved in the language services industry gathered in London for the inaugural SlatorCon on May 9, 2017. The forum featured six 20-minute presentations on many of the industry’s hottest topics like neural machine translation (NMT), translation productivity, procurement, and venture capital and M&A investment.
I opened the forum by giving a broad overview of the forces that are shaping the industry in 2017. My presentation touched on the broadly positive environment many language service providers (LSPs) operate in. Key players like TransPerfect, SDL, and RWS but also smaller vendors like Supertext or translate plus are all reporting rising sales.
From a macroeconomic perspective, things are also looking up. China continues to post solid growth figures, the more mature economies in the US and Europe are gathering steam, and a whole new ecosystem of language services buyers are emerging in India.
The presentation further discussed the very active deal making — 46 transactions have been featured on Slator since the beginning of 2016 — and touched on the explosion of academic research into neural machine translation.
An Investment Banker’s View
In a presentation following the introductory remarks, Simon Baertl, Managing Director and Partner at investment bank William Blair, discussed that one of the drivers behind the increased interest in language services from an investor perspective is the steady growth profile and very fragmented nature of the market.
Baertl, who has been involved in three major language industry transactions, advising on the sale of CLS Communication to Lionbridge, the sale of Welocalize to Norwest Equity Partners, and the acquisition of Wieners+Wieners by ECM, also pointed to the relatively sticky relationships many LSPs enjoy with their clients as an attractive feature of the market.
Of LSPs and Ad Agencies
Marcus Polke, Investment Director at venture capital firm Acton Capital, drew an analogy between the language and the advertising industry. The venture capitalist, who was one of Amazon’s earliest employees in Germany and has seen first-hand how industries get disrupted, said that the language industry could be at a crossroads.
Citing how Google AdWords changed the ad industry as an example, Polke said the language industry may soon be seeing entirely new categories of buyers which will be serviced using business models that have yet to be invented.
That Neural Buzz
This conclusion segued well into John Tinsley’s presentation about what’s the hype and what’s real in the current buzz around NMT. Tinsley, CEO of machine translation provider Iconic Translation Machines, took the media to task for hyping up Google’s rollout of NMT across Google Translate in September 2016.
Tinsley acknowledged that NMT and the future are “exciting” but cautioned that it’s ultimately “just another type of MT” and “not going to replace human translators.” He stressed that academic research and the production rollout of NMT are still in the very early stages. Among the practical challenges he sees are NMT struggling with long sentences or omitting phrases.
“Still, NMT’s output can be ‘insanely fluent,” he said.
Procuring Translation in Life Science
After an active networking break, participants were treated to a highlight of the forum: a presentation by one of the language industry’s largest buyers of translation services explaining their procurement mix.
Steve Kirk, Chief Global Procurement Officer at QuintilesIMS, which is by far the world’s largest clinical research organization, walked participants through the many variables he and his teams consider when evaluating a supplier relationship with an LSP.
Kirk places vendors in four broad categories: Non-critical, Bottleneck, Leverage, and Strategic. Vendors in the non-critical category are many and can be easily switched, while vendors in the Strategic category are central to the operations and may be hard to replace.
Translation services at Quintiles fall under Strategic. Kirk said any procurement leader would, however, constantly try to move a vendor to the Leverage category to allow for shorter-term contracts and hard negotiations.
While Quintiles is a major buyer in the here and now, the forum’s last speaker, Spence Green, CEO of translation productivity technology startup Lilt, sees potentially vast new markets opening up as 53% of the world’s population that are not yet connected to the internet are coming online.
Green said that to meet this emerging demand with high quality translations, new translators, who leverage existing machine translation technology in a more intuitive user interface, need to be brought into the mix. Green made the case for tools, his own creation included, of course, that combine MT with human translation in a way that brings down the cost-per-word to something like 0.6 cents.
The presentations were followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. One question from the audience came from Robert Timms, Director of London-based LSP translate plus, who asked where the VC funds flow into in the language industry. Marcus Polke, whose VC firm Acton Capital made an investment into German-based Tolingo, shared that their funds were invested 50/50 into Sales & Marketing and R&D. Lilt’s Spence Green, meanwhile, said they used their recent funding mostly on R&D and Engineering.
Slator co-founder Andrew Smart closed the forum by sharing an update on how Slator has progressed over the past 18 months and announcing upcoming SlatorCons in New York (October 26) and Zurich (December 5). Then it was off to the networking reception.
For more detailed insights discussed at SlatorCon, stay tuned over the coming days and weeks.