Syracuse Surge Accelerator-Meet the Teams: Sign-Speak

Posted on January 10, 2024

Syracuse Surge Accelerator Sign-Speak

After graduating college with degrees in math and economics, Yamillet Payano was working for Fannie Mae and looking to get a master's degree in computer science. But as she was exploring master's programs, she had a chance meeting that changed her trajectory. A friend introduced her to two people in school at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Nicholas Wilkins and Nikolas Kelly. Their first meeting quickly turned into days of conversation and an opportunity to start a business together. 

“I had a full ride to go get my master's and didn't go. I mean, masters are always going to be there. I can always go get my masters. I don’t always find two amazing people to build a business with,” Payano said. 

They created Sign-Speak, a real time American Sign Language recognition and transcription solution that enables businesses to better communicate with Deaf and Hard of Hearing clients and employees. Sign-Speak is one of five teams participating in the Syracuse Surge Accelerator.  

To Payano, language is everything. As a first-generation American, she often translated for her parents for everything from medical appointments to immigration paperwork. So, creating a technology solution that makes situations, from employment to social events to housing, more accessible for a historically disadvantaged community is something she’s truly passionate about. Payano said some of the most affirming feedback on the technology comes from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.  

“There was a person who cried when they tried it. She's in her 60s, and she was like, ‘I wish I'd had that when I was younger,’” Payano said. “When you have so many things like that accumulate, it gives you a drive to continue going that I think very few people can understand.” 

Payano and the rest of the Sign-Speak team have big plans for the company. They’re hoping to one day make the technology as ubiquitous as voice recognition in cell phones, smart TVs and computers. To get there, Payano is making the most of her time in the Syracuse Surge Accelerator. Since joining the accelerator this summer, Sign-Speak has increased datasets by more than 10x, resulting in a significant competitive advantage by creating the largest dataset of sign language. They also continue to fundraise and create new partnerships with businesses to incorporate Sign-Speak into their workplace technology. 

“We want the Deaf community to have equal experiences because they pay the exact same thing that we pay for those tools. They pay thousands of dollars for the iPhone, but they don't get to use it like you and I.” 

To learn more about Sign-Speak, visit their website. If you have a startup that you think would be right for the Syracuse Surge Accelerator, please click here to fill out our interest form and receive information about when applications open for the next cohort. 

​Get to know the five Syracuse Surge Accelerator inaugural cohort teams in our weekly profiles. This is the final profile of the five-part series.

Photo by Shanay Bradley-Light to the Darkness Photography

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