Thursday, May 24, 2007

Speech technology company in court (3)

Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products (L&H) was a Belgian company, which fast became the darling of the Belgian industry. The Belgian finance institutes fell over each other to become the house bank. The royal house was interested in the company, certainly after that it got a share, framed in glass, during one of their visits. And the company became the politicians’ pet, especially of the Flemish ones.

Belgium is a federal state. The country divided in three official language areas, where people speak French; Flemish a derivative of the Dutch language; German. There is a great rivalry between the French speaking people (Wallons) and the Flemish speaking people (Flemish). Historically the Wallons were the rich people of Belgian. They had the heavy industry, like the metal works in Liege. The Flemish were more agriculturally oriented. But in the seventies Flanders started an industrial drive. In the eighties a science park was built in Ieper, one of the cities where heavy fights took place during the First World War. Flanders Language Valley would give an incentive to the Flanders Technology. And it did.

L&H established their company in the Flanders Language Valley in 1987. Being a company developing innovative products, the company was in the right place. It is close to universities, but also close to France and the UK. It became in fact a demonstrator company.

In the beginning the company does everything in order to attract attention. It develops a Christmas ball with a built-in eye to watch over the presents. When someone gets too close to the presents, it will start playing a fragment of Jingle Bells and saying: Ho, ho , ho. Christmas is coming soon, but don’t open the presents yet. On Christmas day the message sounded: Merry Christmas open the present now, ho, ho, ho. The Christmas speech product was developed in the second half of the year and it missed the buying window of the big store purchasers.

The company also developed the Promotalker, a kind of ticker tape window, for presenting messages in museums. The Promotalker was also used to broadcast messages to the people who came to look at the famous triptych of Lamb of God by the Brothers Van Eyck in the cathedral in Gent. However the equipment got overheated and just in time a visitor coupled off the Promotalker. Otherwise the famous painting, one of the culture treasures of Flanders, would have been damaged or destroyed due to the innovative device.

Belgium really was proud when in 1995 L&H went on the Nasdaq in New York. Two local Flanders boys had made it thanks to their innovative company. After this, technology icons like Bill Gates came to visit the Flanders Technology Valley in Ieper.

By that time everyone, financial institutes, but also the Flanders citizen were ready to buy a share in the company. When the company went bankrupt more than 130.000 citizens had bought shares in the company.

Photograph of one of the buildings in the Flanders Language Valley, after Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products had gone bankrupt.

Blog Posting Number: 763

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