Industry Watch

Speaking freelyCharles Howerton, founder

New markets emerge for ELSA translation gadget from MN startup

Hospitals, law enforcement, National Ski Patrol among those adopting RTT Mobile Interpretation’s device

By Hannah Jones
Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Spanish, Korean, or anything else — when St. Cloud Hospital nurse Stephanie Hagen meets a family that speaks a foreign language, she grabs an ELSA. 
Built by RTT Mobile Interpretation, a small company in Chaska, the $395 device is a simple black box about the size of a deck of cards. Through it, users access translation services that can handle more than 180 languages and dialects. (ELSA stands for “Enabling Language Service Anywhere.”)
The ELSA’s speaker projects sounds crisply over loud environments and filters out noise on the sender’s end, too. It’s hands-free, compact, and durable, with a battery life of 8 hours turned on, 30 hours on standby. Calls are recorded and stored in a data vault in Minneapolis. 
What surprised Hagen most when she got her hands on an ELSA about two years ago: the voice on the other end is no computer. ELSA connects the user to a real, human interpreter. 
That, she says, makes a world of difference. “Sometimes trust is hard to perceive when there’s a language barrier,” she notes. When she uses ELSA, she can feel confident that the families understand everything the hospital is doing to keep their loved ones comfortable. It’s the ability of a human to convey trust and compassion that distinguishes ELSA from its software competitors, according to inventor and RTT Mobile’s founder, Charles Howerton. 
Under the leadership of Howerton and the company’s president and COO, John Grove, the small company is getting some big attention. In July, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives named the device Technology of the Year at its annual conference.
ELSA is now used in dozens of states in a variety of settings, including resorts, hospitals, and correctional facilities. Among its Minnesota-based adopters are CentraCare Health, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, and Three Rivers Park District
The National Ski Patrol plans to use ELSA on the slopes. Rescuers can ask accident victims, whichever language they speak, what hurts and whether they have feeling in their limbs. That usually determines whether it’s safe to move them.
Howerton originally invented ELSA about seven years ago to communicate with Spanish-speaking workers at his small construction company. The prototype had a radio board and a boom mic sticking out of it, and it was festooned with several exposed wires. “If you ran into an airport with that thing right now, they would shoot you on sight,” he jokes. 
But for his needs at the time, it worked beautifully. He no longer had to pay a bilingual foreman to translate as needed. 
When he showed the device to his brother, then a police officer in Virginia, he realized the ELSA had wider applications than construction. On the streets, his brother said, the device would be a “game changer.”
The ELSA has been a game changer in Howerton’s life, too. In 2007, he applied for a patent and sold his construction company to take a chance on his invention. 
Unfortunately, his timing lined up with the onset of the economic recession in 2008. Everyone he showed the product to — law enforcement, emergency medical services, family members — thought it showed promise, but few were willing to invest. “Getting an investor to put some money in was like reaching into a rottweiler’s mouth and pulling a bad tooth,” he says. 
It so happened that his first investor was his dentist. As the economy loosened up, others followed.
From the onset, Howerton was working against his relative inexperience in running a business (beyond a local construction company). More comfortable as an ideas man than a money manager, he made a series of bad hires, “people who were more interested in building their financial portfolios than a company.”
In 2012, he met John Grove, who had overheard a demonstration of the ELSA at a pharmaceutical conference. Howerton detected a true passion for the product in Grove. Then with Alabama-based JRG Consulting Services, Grove had experience with sales and operations in a number of health care organizations, including Principle Pharmacy Group, Cardinal Health, and Texas Children’s Hospital. Before long, Grove was president and COO of RTT Mobile, with Howerton gladly playing the role of chief innovation officer.
Howerton learned to delegate in other ways. For the ELSA prototype, he originally asked bilingual people he knew (including his now-wife) to translate. Today RTT Mobile partners with three interpretation service providers, including California-based Pacific Interpreters. The latter has been in the business since 1992 and has all its systems, certifications, and processes in place. Why hire an interpreter to be available at 2 a.m., Howerton figures, when “there are companies out there that are really good at doing that.” 
For similar reasons, Ayrshire Electronics in St. Paul builds ELSA’s circuit boards, In’Tech Industries in Ramsey assembles the product, and Sprint provides service coverage, making it possible to use the device wherever there’s a cellular signal. 
ELSA users set up an account, similar to a cellular plan’s, with RTT Mobile. The latter pays the interpretation providers for their services and charges a premium. One press of ELSA’s main button automatically brings up a Spanish interpreter. Two presses brings up an operator who can connect users to interpreters of other languages. (Or clients can have the buttons customized in some other way.) Prices and plans vary, but “in the end, the customers pay for what they use,” says Grove. 
In the future, he expects, the ELSA will be smaller and sleeker. More cellular partners will be on offer, along with different versions of RTT Mobile’s technology for different kinds of clients. As the technology and company develop, Howerton and Grove foresee ELSA usage spreading to schools, airplanes, amusement parks, car rental services, and elsewhere. “What we’re saying,” Grove says, “is there’s really no limit.”