Meet the Patrons Q&A with SoapBox Labs CEO Dr. Martyn Farrows

Reading time: approx 12 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Dr. Martyn Farrows, the CEO of Soapbox Labs, which delivers the highest performing and most accurate speech recognition solution for children on the market.

Martyn has more than 25 years’ experience in learning technology and AI for children and is a specialist in the area of children’s data privacy. He has been a member of the Irish government’s Data Forum since its inception.

Originally from the UK, Martyn came to Ireland in 1992 to study a Masters in European Politics at the University of Limerick. Although Martyn had no family connections with Ireland, he liked it here and, on a scholarship from the Irish Department for Education, stayed on for a PhD in European Politics at UL. 

At the time, he saw his career in Europe and he moved with his then girlfriend, now wife, to Brussels in 1995 where they stayed for seven years. While in Brussels, working with the Directorate General for Innovation Policy, he got interested in the Research & Innovation side of technology and, as the internet started to take off, he became more involved in the application of technology to support learning. 

In 2000, he left the European Commission to work with one of the companies he had been dealing with and, ever since then, he has been working in technology to support learning and innovation. 

The sector was in its infancy and it was an exciting time as Martyn moved into building web-based authoring tools for learning experiences. He returned to Ireland and commuted to the role in the UK before starting to work with the schoolbook publisher CJ Fallon. It was while in that role he got to know the vibrant EdTech ecosystem in Ireland and, in 2012, became the first director of Learnovate, a role he held for four years.

“People don’t always realise that there is a strong EdTech ecosystem here built around people and expertise over a few decades. There is an established value provided by people who have deep experience in this area,” says Martyn. 

It was as Director of Learnovate that Martyn met Patricia Scanlon, the Founder of Soapbox Labs.  “I had not seen anything as innovative as what Patricia was doing in education and I could see the direct application of what she was doing for my kids who were young at the time.”

Patricia became a spin-in entrepreneur to Learnovate and after an 18-month incubation period funded through an Enterprise Ireland grant, the company spun out of Learnovate.  Martyn stayed in touch as an advisor, then on the board, subsequently joining the company full-time in 2017 as Chief Operations Officer following a successful seed funding round. He was appointed to the CEO role in May 2021.  

Soapbox Labs, which has its main customer base in the US, continues to scale. It now has a team of 35, which almost doubled during the Covid pandemic, with around 90pc based in Ireland and the rest in the UK, Denmark, Slovakia and the US. Its two biggest market verticals are the education and the play (toys, games) markets. Soapbox Labs’ technology can support every stage of the literacy journey, from pre-literate children right through to measuring reading fluency and comprehension.  SoapBox is the ‘engine inside’, providing the tech to power magical and engaging experiences. 

Last year, the company processed in excess of 25 million assessments of children speaking and it is scheduled to grow that exponentially this year through taking on new key strategic partners and developing new products. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

I think the biggest lesson for me is that there is no one silver bullet solution that addresses learning. If you take the time to study learning theory, you very quickly realise it is a complex process. There has been a tendency in the past to think that technology can magically solve the learning process with a mythical silver bullet solution. But it doesn’t exist. In reality, it is a combination of technologies and approaches that, combined, can help support learning, but there is no one thing that is going to solve everything.  

What was the best advice you ever received?

I would say the most ‘valuable’ piece of advice I received was aged 16, when my school career counsellor told me I wasn’t academically suited to doing A levels and going on to University.  I left school a few weeks later suitably motivated to prove him wrong and had completed an undergrad, Masters and PhD by the time I was 26.

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

My approach tends to be very much around giving people the opportunity to shine in their own roles. Autonomy is a big thing for me and the people I work with; to give people the space and autonomy to be able to fulfil the role for themselves. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

I think the last two years has taught us a lot about being more empathetic to each person’s particular approach to work/life balance. We’ve all been forced into this enormous social experiment of working from home and finding new ways of interacting with each other in a work environment – whilst also trying to balance our lives outside of work with the lives we have inside work. This has become blurred because, for many people, these two lives are now physically in the same space. 

The situation forced on us because of Covid has made us all become a lot more understanding of individuals’ own lives outside of work and that’s to the benefit of the culture of a working environment but also to interpersonal relationships. We were required to become more empathic and empathy is a huge part of having a really enjoyable and productive workplace. The knock-on effect of that is that it changes our perception of what leadership is. Leadership becomes much more about being accommodating rather than being prescriptive. 

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

As an organisation, all of our development work was always in the cloud. We were really well set up to work remotely. I’ve found that as we have moved to this new working environment that tools like Slack, as a communication platform, have become an essential part of the day. Slack is critical to my ability to do my job. But it is also critical to have the discipline to block off time during the day where you don’t engage on those platforms so you can focus on the work. So, while these tools are all important, the ability to turn them off is also an important skill!  

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish and Northern Irish companies?

In education, I think where we will see the most innovation and re-calibration over the next 10 years is in the area of assessment. Over the last two years, young people were forced into a hybrid model of exams, and the long-term impact of that globally is there is a huge amount of thinking going on about how we design assessments in the future, what do assessment look like and how we rethink that and use technology to help redesign. Most assessments we use today were designed on the assumption we don’t have technology available – they would look very different if we started designing them from scratch today.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

I think we are extremely fortunate here in Ireland as we punch above our weight internationally when it comes to use of technology to support learning. Learnovate is a critical part of that fabric. We need to be investing at that research level in order to be able to continue to grow commercially, to continue to build businesses here that have an international footprint and to continue to attract talent to Ireland that want to work in that industry. We have to continue to invest in it and demonstrate that we are capable of innovation in those areas. Learnovate – and the whole network of technology centres – are a crucial part of that. 

We are currently working on a project with Learnovate where they are helping us to more effectively visualise a lot of the data that we generate from our system. Our system creates lots of different data points and lots of information that can be hard for multiple stakeholders to consume. It has lots of value in lots of ways for different stakeholder groups and we have to find more effective ways for those stakeholder groups to consume that data. One of the ways to do that is to rethink how you visualise that data to those different stakeholder groups. Learnovate is helping us with that data analysis and visualisation project. It is of real value to us to be able to box off that discreet project and for the guys at Learnovate to deliver it back with real insights that we can then use at a real, concrete level.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning? 

One is as a direct result of the global experiment we were all forced into especially around learning – we are starting to see much more effective and targeted use of technology because people were forced into using it effectively. When you are forced to make choices, it makes you make really insightful decisions about the technologies that are useful and those that aren’t. Zoom is a great example. Two years ago, nobody was using Zoom in classrooms but now everyone is totally aware of how useful it can be. We are learning to be more discerning about what is a useful piece of tech but also understanding its constraints.

Another trend is the blurring of lines between education and play. As we start to think more creatively about technologies – especially augmented and virtual reality technologies – we can see that they can be incredibly valuable as learning environments for kids, if supported and applied in a right and ethical way. 

As a business, we are processing voice data from kids as young as two years old. That has massive implications from a data privacy perspective, so we must be incredibly diligent about applying our privacy by design approach. But it also raises complex ethical issues. The thoughtful application of these AI technologies in an age-appropriate way is extremely important to us. 

How should we prepare for the future of work? 

The genie is out of the bottle now. Covid has normalised working from home and it has resulted in a significant shift in terms of the power balance towards employees. If an employee has enjoyed the hybrid model and their employer is not going to value that, then they are just going to work somewhere else. Unless an employer has a very good reason to insist that people have to go into a physical environment to work, then you have to think very carefully if you are going to impose that. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It is a series of personal writings by the Roman Emperor in which he is recording his private notes to himself. It provides great short snippets of wisdom. I am also a big fan of Shoshana Zuboff and her writings on the implications of the digital economy – particularly The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

At a simple level, we are a business that has developed deep IP and a lot of the senior members of the company have a strong understanding of the value of R&D. We have a great affinity to the overall objectives of Learnovate and the technology centre programme generally. 

Historically, a company in an industry like ours would have needed to work with a university like Trinity to get access to compute power but, with cloud computing, that has all changed. The emphasis has shifted from access to facilities to intellectual capital. In our case, we wouldn’t necessarily hire a team of data scientists but we know we can access data scientists through Trinity and Learnovate. 

Why do companies in Ireland & NI need the support of a centre like Learnovate?

There are two main compelling reasons for joining Learnovate. The first is that you learn from other people. There is a networking opportunity by being part of this ecosystem and the fabric of the industry and Learnovate is a really strong focal point for that. 

The second very real benefit is if you have a very clear idea of specific projects that you think you can benefit from by deploying Learnovate to support you with them. But you have to be very clear in your idea and about what you want to achieve. Short-term innovation projects are where the real value is because you can get results and outcomes really quickly and you get access to expertise that you would not be employing. 

What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?

For us, as a business, we were able to adapt very quickly. It was almost seamless because all the tools and the way we collaborated were in the cloud. Obviously, you miss the face-to-face interaction but it wasn’t a requirement for us to work. From a customer and market perspective, prior to Covid, I would have been spending a week every two months in the US. My main concern was how that would impact on the relationships that I am building with partners because we enter into partnerships of five to seven years. But what happened was there was a period of four to six months where everyone said they needed time to get their heads around everything. But once everyone did that, it was like a level-playing field as everyone was working from home. It didn’t matter; it was a leveller. 

We have also seen a lot of growth in the market because of the move towards remote learning, which means more technology. More technology means more innovation and more innovation means using more tools like ours. There are also stimulus packages available in the US that wouldn’t have been there before Covid that are generating revenue opportunities for us. 

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