French startup Nijta hopes to protect voice privacy in AI use cases

A recording of your voice may seem innocuous, but it can actually reveal your identity, as well as additional data about you, such as how you are feeling. But it can also uncover diseases from which you may suffer.

People may not have grasped this yet, but companies that process data are increasingly aware that they need to handle voice as personally identifiable information. This is particularly true in Europe in the context of GDPR: While many companies are hoping to build AI on top of voice data, in many cases, this requires removing biometric information first.

This is where Nijta hopes to help: by providing AI-powered speech anonymization technology to clients that need to comply with privacy requirements. While its name is a Hindi word for privacy, it is based in Lille, France, where its Indian CEO, Brij Srivastava, moved for his PhD at INRIA, the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation.

Nijta was born from Inria Startup Studio, a program aimed at supporting PhD entrepreneurs who want to start a business. It worked: Nijta is now an award-winning young B2B company with €2 million in funding from various sources, including French deep tech VC fund Elaia and Lille-based investment firm Finovam Gestion.

“Europe is our primary market,” Srivastava told TechCrunch. The main reason is simple: “GDPR is a very strong data privacy law.” While voice anonymization can be relevant to several sectors, Nijta’s soft spot is a mix of compliance and business opportunity.

“Nijta’s AI-powered voice anonymization technology offers a solution for many enterprises who are increasingly concerned about data privacy and excited about generative AI,” Elaia investment director Céline Passedouet said in a statement.

Growing use cases

Call centers in general are potential customers of Nijta, but even more so when they deal with health data.

One of its early collaborations was around Oky Doky, a project aimed at better handling medical emergency calls. While it is easy to see how AI can help, it is obvious that voices had to be anonymized to both remove speaker identity and personally identifiable information from the training data.

Other use cases include defense scenarios, which Srivastava didn’t expand on for obvious reasons, but also edtech, where children’s voices need to be anonymized before leveraging AI to give them pronunciation feedback, for instance.

Content generated by Nijta is watermarked, which is becoming the standard if not the rule for all things generative AI. The startup also says that Nijta Voice Harbor’s protection is irreversible, unlike some of the voice modifications unwisely used by media outlets hoping to protect victims they interview.

A lack of awareness of privacy issues around voice is one of the challenges Nijta will have to face. This is also why starting with B2B and Europe seems to make sense: Even if customers aren’t pushing for voice privacy, risking a hefty fine is turning companies into early adopters.

Eventually, though, Nijta is hoping to expand into B2C, with an eye on securing recorded messages, for instance. “Real-time anonymization for secure communication is also something that we are very actively exploring,” Srivastava said. But B2C is a few years down the line; Nijta’s small team can’t spread itself too thin.

Northern tailwinds

Nijta has seven team members including Srivastava, his two full-time co-founders, Seyed Ahmad Hosseini and Nathalie Vauquier, and his former professor, senior research scientist and part-time co-founder Emmanuel Vincent. Srivastava hopes that the team will grow to 10 people by June, but it is also receiving external help for efforts the startup wouldn’t pursue on its own.

Business France, in particular, helps Nijta reduce internationalization costs, Srivastava said. “Because we are small, we cannot hire many salespeople in different countries.” Instead, it can rely on prospection from a Business France representative in a particular country, “and the cost is mostly subsidized by [Lille’s] Hauts-de-France region.” In addition, it opened doors for the startup in its sister state of Maryland.

This is one of the reasons why Srivastava has no trouble answering when he (often) gets asked why Nijta is based in Lille, not Paris. While some of the tailwinds it enjoys are more broadly linked to France, it found the country’s northernmost to be conveniently located within close reach of Paris, but also Brussels, Amsterdam and London.

To go international, however, Nijta will have to go multilingual. That’s a big R&D challenge, but one the startup is working on, with its sights on Europe and Asia. It should also help that the startup is set to get another €1 million from Bpifrance‘s deep tech development aid, a combined grant and repayable advance to finance R&D expenditure; this will also make the question of why Srivastava chose Lille and France even easier to answer.