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With Roots in Illinois CS, Quillbot Making Translation for Class Easier for International Students

7/19/2019 12:02:24 PM By Mike Koon, The Grainger College of engineering

Getting acclimated to an unfamiliar culture of a new country is understandably challenging for international students. One of toughest challenges is understanding terms and phrases used in the classroom. This dialogue may be familiar to fluent English speakers, but challenging to those for whom English is not their primary language. That’s where Quillbot comes in.
Quillbot founders and Illinois CS graduates Anil Jason, left, and David Silin.
Quillbot founders and Illinois CS graduates Anil Jason, left, and David Silin.

A startup co-founded a few years ago by then-Illinois Computer Science students Anil Jason (BS CS '17) and David Silin (BS CS '16) is a full-sentence thesaurus and state-of-the-art paraphraser, which helps students refresh their writing by giving them alternative options for whatever input they give it.

This is especially helpful with terms or slang that are hard for new English speakers to understand. Similar to a language translator, students can plug an English phrase into a field in Quillbot and an alternative English phrase will be provided.

“Recognizing the options to say a statement in various ways is extremely helpful to any student that is learning the language,” Jason said.

The genesis for Quillbot came out of a senior thesis. Jason, who has enjoyed participating in hackathons, set out to produce a question-generation machine where professors could vary exam questions from semester to semester and even produce multiple choice questions from an arbitrary article. 

“I thought at the time that if we made the project so difficult and we failed, no one would see us as failures,” Jason recalled. “Throughout the process, we got remarkably close, so I decided to spin it off as startup.”

In 2017, the Quillbot team earned a spot in the iVenture Accelerator at the University of Illinois Research Park. That’s when Rohan Gupta joined the team as Chief Operating Officer and they made a transition to paraphrasing, noting there seemed to be a vacuum within the industry. 

“iVenture is one of the best resources that exists for startups,” Jason said. “In addition to $10,000 equity free, they offered us a community that fosters innovation and guidance with people taking similar risks. Before, iVenture, I was an isolated engineer more focused on the technology because, at the time, that was the bottleneck. They enforced customer discovery, which is an absolute necessity.”

Jason also credits his experience in Hackathons for molding his innovation mindset.

“Hackathons are useful resources that teach you how to take emerging technologies and slap them together to make something great,” he said. “You learn how to do rapid prototyping with a random assortment of people. It’s like a micro startup essentially.”  

Quillbot has moved its operations to the Chicago suburb of Lombard and Jason indicates that even with very little marketing, the service already has about 30,000 daily active users around the globe, up by about 65 percent over the spring. 

“Most of the growth has been viral,” Jason said.  It’s amazing how little advertising we’ve done. We posted on a handful of discussion boards and it just picked up from there.”

In addition to an extended rollout, which eventually will include a subscription component, the company is experimenting with business-to-business relationships with other education-focused groups.

“The trajectory is constantly up,” Jason said optimistically.  “There are a lot of options on the table, including integration for added augmentation. We have artificial intelligence that can generate a multitude of sentences for a given sentence. So, for instance, if you’re an operation that wants to take a small data set and increase it for training purposes or you want to augment your artificial intelligence, we are a fantastic service for that.” 

In the meantime, Jason says he is encouraged by the feedback he is getting for the Quillbot service in the early stages.  

“Every day I wake to a lot of students saying thank you for helping me with my English homework,” he said. “One of the driving forces for this inspiration was to potentially accelerate the progression of artificial intelligence by creating a symbiotic relationship between these agents and humans. It builds on the idea that any time you have a friend to study with, you’re both going to learn.”