The Download: Igor Jablokov, CEO, Pryon Inc.

Igor Jablokov is the CEO and Founder of Raleigh-based Pryon. Named an “Industry Luminary” by Speech Technology Magazine, he previously founded industry pioneer Yap, the world’s first high-accuracy, fully-automated cloud platform for voice recognition. After its products were deployed by dozens of enterprises, the company became Amazon’s first AI-related acquisition. The firm’s inventions then served as the nucleus for follow-on products such as Alexa, Echo, and Fire TV. As a Program Director at IBM, Igor led the team that designed the precursor to Watson and developed the world’s first multimodal Web browser.

Igor was awarded Eisenhower and Truman National Security fellowships to explore and expand the role of entrepreneurship and venture capital in addressing geopolitical concerns. As an innovator in human language technologies, he believes in fostering career and educational opportunities for others entering STEM fields. As such, he serves as a mentor in the Techstars’ Alexa Accelerator, was a Blackstone N.C. Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR), and founded a chapter of the Global Shapers, a program of the World Economic Forum.

Igor holds a B.S. in Computer Engineering from Pennsylvania State University, where he was named an Outstanding Engineering Alumnus, and an MBA from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler.

1. What is in your pockets?
Because my hair at times flies around like Albert Einstein’s, I carry a Mason Pearson comb made in Switzerland.  Because I’m so exacting and specific with the brand of something, I actually do research even on the tiniest of things. I want to acquire things, even in my own personal life, about people that are passionate about their work.

I have a radio-frequency-blocking wallet and because I’m meticulous, I have little wipes to keep a screen clear. I’m always cleaning the screen of my iPhone, glasses and watch.

I don’t have a car key. I’ve been traveling so much that the thought of being an owner of a car became pointless. I’ve just been Ubering around town. When I computed the net cost of maintaining a Tesla, which is the last car that I had, or any other car, it ended up being pointless given how often I was out of town.

2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
I started my career at IBM and departed because I wanted to more aggressively deploy and invent AI technologies. And so, my last startup (Yap) ended up becoming venture-funded and was Amazon’s first ever AI acquisition. Since then, we felt like this type of capability needed to come to the workplace. And so we started a company called Pryon, which incidentally was the code name for the speech engine that became Alexa. And so, with this company, we received, all in, almost $25 million in capital, which I think is the largest funded AI company in North Carolina now, according to CB Insights. We’re growing in all dimensions, with a specific focus on fundamental research and development, in order to define the state of the art for this form of artificial intelligence. We’re not trying to copy Google, we’re trying to surpass Google and everybody else that’s out there that’s working in this realm. Because, in this company, we hired some of the true originators and the leaders behind human language technologies.

We have blown away my expectations, which, I have to tell you is difficult because I have high expectations. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. We work long hours, we work hard, we hire the best people that we can muster, and we try to get the best investors and best customers and best partners. And even I’m labeling what happened in the last couple years as surreal. Absolutely surreal. You wouldn’t believe the brands that are lining up to consume our platform.

I tell people that founders are supposed to, by their very nature, have a reality distortion field. I was joking with my head of research last night, I’m like, “I don’t have to distort anything.” Even me telling you the truth about what’s happening seems ridiculous. And so, I got to tell you though, with all these great people around us and these great opportunities, if we flubbed this up, I have to be tarred and feathered in downtown, at our Capitol Square. Nobody’s ever had this advantage in terms of capital and talent. And I’m not going to fail. It would be comical to fail with this hand.

This is in every dimension in terms of scientific discovery, the quality of the engineering team and their experiences having worked on big clouds before, the interest in the public sector, the interest across every major entity that you can think of in the private sector, the quality of our financiers. And listen, people that typically found companies are not happy, chipper people. We’re very serious and studious and focused. We’re not entirely pleasant people to be around because we’re so fixated on these goals. And so, for one of us to say, “Hey, this is actually pretty good,” is actually a big deal because we’re not normally satiated. So that’s what I’m trying to get across.

3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
Hereghty on Glenwood. I’m addicted to their chocolate eclairs, unfortunately, and they’re my favorite local thing.

4. What keeps you up at night?
Working. That’s it. I’m honestly not worried about anything. We have the funding and we’re going to get more funding. And the only way to get more funding, or not require funding, through the course of our own operations and launching customers and things like that, is having a strong work ethic. So, nothing keeps us up at night other than working.

One of our seed financiers showed us the statistic that only one out of 10,000 startups failed out of a competitive threat. The other 9,999 failed because of execution mistakes. And so honestly, the way to not have a mistake is just have a strong ethic, build a strong team that are bright, they’re challenging each other, that are proactive and reactive, they’re taking advantage of the networks around us, that builds an actual strong product. At the same time, they know how to market it. So, it’s not the best technology that wins, it’s also the best business inclinations, as you have to solve both sides of the equation. If you do that, the only thing keeping you up at night should be working. We know that it’s not going to be this magical thing where it’s going to be a comfortable lifestyle in the early days of this. And we just had to make peace with that.

5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
I don’t get out to happy hour. My happy hour is typically taking phone calls with the West Coast. My guilty pleasure is Herons at The Umstead, which feels like a little oasis. I like taking business lunches there because it’s super-quiet for a lunch and you can just focus on the people that you’re meeting there and the discussion.

6. What is next for you or your organization?
I think it’s turning potential energy into kinetic. It’s taking all the work that we’ve been doing in research and running it through engineering, that then runs it in operations. So that’s just step one. Step two through to step three, research turns into engineering, engineering turns into operations and then people can consume this. So, right now we’re running a number of proof-of-concept trials, and the entire company’s trajectory is pointed towards production use of our capabilities and we’re doing that as aggressively as we can. We’ll end up announcing different partners and different projects and things like that throughout the fall.

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About Brooks Malone 28 Articles
Brooks Malone is a NC CPA and Partner with Hughes Pittman & Gupton, LLP, and leads the Technology practice group. Brooks is also listed contributor to the National Fast Trac Tech Curriculum that was funded by the Kauffman Foundation. Brooks was named one of the 40 Under 40 in May 2005 by the TBJ, received the Outstanding service to Entrepreneurs Award in 2008 by CED, and named to the Leadership Raleigh Hall of Fame in October 2011. Brooks is a graduate of North Carolina State University and is active at American Underground and HQ Raleigh.