resident’s translation app takes off

Jibbigo is arguably the smartest app in the app store,” says Matt Harbaugh, CEO of Mobile Technologies, the company behind it all. A Mt. Lebanon resident, Harbaugh was formerly the Chief Investment Officer of Innovation Works, the largest investor of seed-stage companies in the region. Harbaugh, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, lives on Parkway Drive with his wife, Jane, and two children, ages 7 and 4.

Matt Harbaugh’s company, Mobile Technologies, is responsible for Jibbigo, the hot new translation app.

“The size of the potential market is staggering, well over $1 billion,” he says.

If the name Jibbigo seems like gibberish, that’s the point. It’s what many of us sound like when we try to communicate in a language we don’t speak or understand. The $4.99 one-time download gives users access to a 40,000-word, two-way vocabulary in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German, Tagalog (Filipino) and Arabic. (Available on iPhone, iPad and Android.) Imagine the possibilities for international companies and disaster relief workers. In fact, when on-the-ground rebuilding was underway in Japan in the days following the devastating earthquake, Jibbigo assisted by providing its powerful offline application to relief organizations. It was also instrumental to humanitarian work in Thailand and Honduras.

That’s because it’s the only voice translation app in the world that functions without the Internet or a phone connection, enabling users to understand a spoken language in locations that don’t have reliable phone service, says Harbaugh. And there’s no roaming charges to pay. Harbaugh, who spent 10 years working with early stage companies, says he couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with world renowned experts on a promising new technology. Jibbigo was developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Alex Waibel, a recognized leader in the field of multilingual and speech translation systems. Waibel has devoted more than 20 years to developing the tool as the director of the International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies (interACT).

“There was a lot of excitement around the products, but the company needed someone with my skill set on the business and operation side,” says Harbaugh, who graduated with a B.A. from Duke before going on for a law degree and MBA from George Washington University. “He’s (Waibel) the godfather in this field of science and is bringing the best people in the world to the team.”

The international press has embraced the technology since it was first introduced in 2009. Hailed as the universal translation tool of the future, Jibbigo has appeared on the BBC, Science Channel, PBS Nova and was selected a top travel app by Travel and Leisure. Mobile Technologies is also branding the app under Lonely Planet, one of the largest travel guides in the world, giving the company access to Lonely Planet’s 9 million subscribers.

“The goal now is to spread the word to consumers that the technology exists,” says Harbaugh.  “The market is enormous.” Harbaugh notes that the ease of the application should in no way deter anyone from learning how to speak a foreign language properly. There is no better way to address those in a foreign country than a face-to-face conversation spoken and pronounced well, he says.

“It’s an exciting time to be working in technology,” he says. “Our goal is to eliminate language barriers. To achieve that will be a major shift for humanity. It’s changing the way we think about human interaction, distance and what’s possible.”

Mobile Technologies, which employs 16, is based on the South Side and has offices in Karlsruhe, Germany, and Mountain View, California.     —Debra Diamond Smit