After Years of Legal Battles, Vlingo to Be Acquired by Nuance

Cambridge, MA-based voice-to-text tech startup Vlingo, which just three months ago charged Nuance Communications with unfair competition, commercial bribery, breach of contract, and intentional interference with prospective business relationships, is being acquired by the Burlington, MA-based speech software giant, according to an announcement today.

Nuance (NASDAQ: NUAN) and Vlingo, which develops speech-recognition technology for cell phones that has been likened to Apple’s Siri, have spent years wrangling in court, starting with a 2008 patent infringement lawsuit filed by Nuance, covering its patent known as ‘295. As of this September, the two companies were involved in seven open lawsuits with each other, five of which were filed by Nuance and two of which came from Vlingo.

[Disclosure: the brother-in-law of Xconomy Boston editor Greg Huang is a co-founder of Vlingo. Mr. Huang was not involved in the planning, directing, reporting, or editing of this story.]

Today’s announcements make no mention of the lawsuits. Nuance said in its statement that consumer demand for voice-enabled controls on devices like phones, tablets, televisions, and navigation devices prompted the deal, and that “Nuance and Vlingo will combine their deep innovation and R&D expertise to deliver next-generation natural language interfaces across numerous markets and industries.”

Vlingo’s statement was much less detailed, noting that the transaction was subject to customary closing conditions, that it is expected to close in 2012, and that its purchase price is not being revealed. The startup also noted that it will operate as an independent company until the closing is complete. The Nuance press release quotes Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan as saying: “Vlingo and Nuance have long shared a similar vision for the power and global proliferation of mobile voice and language understanding. As a result of our complementary research and development efforts, our companies are stronger together than alone.”

In its September lawsuit against Nuance, Vlingo revealed the complicated relationship it shared with Nuance. The lawsuit alleged that at one point Nuance CEO Paul Ricci attempted to bribe three Vlingo executives by offering them $5 million each if they could convince their board of directors to sell to Nuance (which was already an investor in Vlingo). Despite all of it, Grannan mentioned that he wasn’t opposed to selling his startup to Nuance, but that they “don’t want to be forced into doing it at a low price based on these tactics that they use.”

When I spoke with Grannan back in the summer, right after Nuance accused Vlingo of false advertising based on statements Vlingo made on its website about its technology, he noted that the bigger company was using litigation as a business strategy. “They just want to get us into court to cost our startup time and money,” Grannan said.

Vlingo appeared to have gained some ground in August, though, when a federal jury in Boston found that Vlingo did not infringe on the Nuance ‘295 patent, which covers the technique for making computerized transcriptions of a users’ speech more accurate over time using audio samples from multiple sessions. But it’s presumably been a costly road for Vlingo. Grannan hasn’t disclosed the startup’s exact legal expenses, but noted that each patent trial can run a company between $2 million and $3 million. And in 2010 Vlingo bought a crop of patents from Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures as aid in the patent litigation.

Both companies say that they are committing to innovating and taking a bigger share of the voice-driven virtual assistance space. It will be interesting to see whether the two companies are truly “stronger together,” given their bitter and embattled history.

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4 responses to “After Years of Legal Battles, Vlingo to Be Acquired by Nuance”

  1. Josh says:

    I hope this means an upgrade to the free version of Vlingo I just downloaded for my company blackberry.