Brown University School of Engineering

Cliff Weitzman's ’16 Text-to-Speech App Garners National Acclaim

January 10, 2017
Text-to-Speech

Peer Entrepreneur-in-Residence Cliff Weitzman '16 (seated) and Nelson Center Executive Director Danny Warshay tweak the newest version of Weitzman's Speechify app. Weitzman's goal is for every dyslexic kid in the world to gain access to Speechify.

Credit: Amy Simmons

Brown's Weitzman makes Forbes' 2017 30 under 30 list of top change-makers, thanks to software app that is close to his own heart.

After creating, then earning, his Renewable Energy Innovation degree last spring, Cliff Weitzman '16 still had more to accomplish on College Hill. He describes his independent concentration as a mix of physics, computer science and engineering, creating his own major and course of study under the guidance of faculty advisor and engineering Associate Professor Domenico Pacifici. An offer from his former entrepreneurship professor, and Executive Director Danny Warshay to stay on as a Peer Entrepreneur-in-Residence (PEIR) for the Jonathan M. Nelson '77 Center for Entrepreneurship's inaugural year seemed like a good plan for the recent grad who still had a few startup ideas of his own that he wanted to be heard.

Just a few months later, Weitzman was named to Forbes Magazine's 2017 list of 30 under 30 top change-makers and innovators in the country. A Google student ambassador and TEDx speaker, Weitzman was honored as the founder of Speechify, a software program that translates text to speech, making reading accessible for those who are dyslexic (like him), have difficulty with vision, or who are English as a second language learners. The Forbes' naming in the Education category tops off a resume that includes winning first place at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's and Stanford University's global startup pitch competitions. At 22, Weitzman is one of the youngest people on the list by far, sharing the honor with mostly 27-29 year olds. He built Speechify with help from his team and fellow Brown students, Jared Siskin ’19 and Noah Picard ’18.

"My goal now is that every dyslexic kid in the world has access to Speechify," he said. "It started off as a product to help me do my work. But every time I showed it to someone else, they asked for a copy. Eventually, I made a YouTube video, teaching people in general how to use text-to-speech. Forty thousand people watched it and about 200 people left comments saying things like, 'I am literally crying. This changed my nine-year-old's life.'"

The Speechify app has not yet launched publicly; it is currently being tested and de-bugged with help from the Hamilton School at Wheeler. Hamilton is a "school-within-a-school" contained inside the Wheeler School in Providence, and serves children from Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts with language-based learning differences. Many Hamilton students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, executive function deficits and/or specific language impairments.

Weitzman plans for a product launch soon, when the app will be made available to the public in app stores online. In the meantime, curious supporters can watch his video online at https://getspeechify.com.

"Ever since I met Cliff, I knew he had the potential to change the world," Pacifici said. "And now I'm glad to see he's doing that one step at a time." It was in Pacifici's lab that Weitzman finalized the details for his concentration designed to introduce students to concepts and skills that allows them to innovate in the field of Renewable Energy. It requires students to first gain an understanding of the technologies involved: photovoltaic solar, concentrated solar, nuclear, hydro, wind, etc., and then learn more about the basics of the science that makes these technologies possible. This initial learning is drawn from classes in engineering, physics, geology, chemistry, economics, and computer science. Under Pacifici's guidance, Weitzman built a working, solar cell from scratch as part of a class project.

"Entrepreneurship and start-ups at Brown have exploded over the past four years," Weitzman said. "And I believe there are three main reasons for it."

First, he cites the Nelson Center. "Danny, Liz (Malone) and Jonas (Clark) are doing great work," he said. The center was established this fall to build on Brown's significant strengths and competencies in entrepreneurship research and teaching, strong alumni networks, and the growing interest in and need for creative approaches to address local and global challenges. The center enables teaching, programming and collaboration among members of the Brown community engaged in entrepreneurial activities, applicable to any student regardless of their field of study.

"Second, Brown CS continues to kill it," Weitzman said. "When I came here, our Computer Science department was the third best program in the country, and it just keeps getting better." Weitzman lists the Hack@Brown event and improvements in, and collaboration with engineering in the Brown Design Workshop as examples of how the concentration meets the needs of its students.

And his third reason for the success of recent Brown startups? The Brown Entrepreneurship Program. "Brown EP, under outgoing co-Presidents Valentin Perez '18 and Ali Paul '18, has doubled its budget and gotten 10 times the number of people involved." For more than two decades, Brown EP has facilitated a wide array of activities on campus, including Startup@Brown (founded by Perez), an annual conference that is one part startup career fair and one part mentoring experience for budding student entrepreneurs.

"When I first came to campus, most of the programs for student funding were for social initiatives. Now with the Nelson Center, there is more support for student startups as well. But there is still room to grow in seed investments for well-developed student projects," Weitzman said.

He would know. In his first-year, he founded BoardBrake, a patented attachable brake for longboards and skateboards. He followed that with CellArmor (a device that blocks cell phone radiation from affecting user's reproductive organs), Direct Boost (a transdermal delivery system for branch chain amino acids), StarterPack (an app downloaded more than 70,000 times), and Find Me Scholarships (a website which actually grew out of his final project for a software engineering class, and is aimed at cultivating a targeted list of scholarships for eligible students). And there were other side projects he tinkered with as well, indicating that some of his best work actually took place in the Ratty on campus.

"I want to create as much value as I can in the world. I love learning, ask a lot of questions, and am always inventing and building," Weitzman said. 

 -Beth James