Features

Taming the Web of Tongues

Internet entrepreneur David Lucatch is on a quest to make language sexy again

by Andrew Westoll
Lucatch

UTSC alumnus David Lucatch in the offices of his Richmond Hill-based company, Intertainment Media Inc.

Photography is not allowed at the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A. But you wouldn’t have known it amid the flickering flashbulbs in the hotel’s ballroom on May 20, 2011.

Onstage, rock legends Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley rose from their seats to raucous applause from an enthusiastic audience. They were joined by television and radio personality Petros Papadakis and a representative from Guinness World Records who announced that Simmons, Stanley and Ortsbo.com—the revolutionary technology they had just launched with a live-streamed event called KISS Live & Global—had set a new world record for the most nationalities ever to participate in an online chat.

But there was one other person onstage that morning worth mentioning. Applauding too, to the left of Simmons and Stanley, was David Lucatch, wearing an understated tan jacket, blue jeans—and a wide smile. The crowd may not have known it, but in many ways that applause was for Lucatch.

The history of human communications technology goes something like this. At some point over the last 2.5 million years, humans invented language. Then, in 1982 we invented the Internet.

Language and the Internet are perhaps the two most transformative communications tools humans have ever come up with. Both have the power to unite people around a common goal, build communities and coordinate societies, and provide a platform for everyone to express themselves to anyone who will listen. How ironic then that ever since the Internet was born, language has been its sworn enemy.

English has been the lingua franca of the Web since its inception. Today, though, a growing cornucopia of languages is regularly used online. According to Internet World Stats, the use of English on the Web has grown 281 percent over the last 10 years. That sounds impressive until you compare it with Spanish (743 percent), Portuguese (990 percent) and Chinese (1,277 percent). The result is a formidable series of language barriers across the Internet. For a technology meant to epitomize openness and the free flow of ideas, this is a problem of existential proportions. The promise of the Web—to bring people from all walks of life together—is hamstrung by the myriad languages online.

It’s an issue that David Lucatch wants to address. “If we think back to our grandparents’ time, language was romantic, language was alluring. Someone spoke Italian and it was a beautiful thing. French was the language of love.” But then the Internet came along, he says, and language became a lost art.

“Today, only one in four people on the Internet speak English. Chinese and Spanish have grown 12-fold in the last several years. Arabic has grown 500 percent. And as bandwidth in developing countries improves, you’re going to see an even greater proliferation of new languages.”

Lucatch, CEO of Intertainment Media Inc. and president of Ortsbo Inc.—and an alumnus of UTSC (BA 1985)—was in Beverly Hills that morning in May with members of the band KISS (his new business partners) for the global launch of Ortsbo.com, his latest venture in an entrepreneurial career that began before he had even left UTSC.

Ortsbo, which means “local” in Swedish, is a real-time multi-language translation tool that allows users anywhere in the world to chat instantly with one another. Hence the perfection of partnering with Gene Simmons, who is fluent in five languages and the owner of the most famous tongue in show business.

Ortsbo syncs with all major social media and online chat services, such as Facebook, MSN Live Messenger, Google Talk and Twitter, as well as Microsoft Outlook. As a Portuguese woman updates her Facebook profile in her language, her Chinese friends see her profile in Chinese, her French friends see it in French, and so on. The translation is immediate and seamless.

While Ortsbo begins life as a social media tool, the implications of the technology behind it are vast. Imagine what a real-time online translation tool could do for, say, global commerce, international diplomacy and higher education (Read “Speaking the Patient’s Language”). While prudence is always advisable during the rollout of a new technology, it’s plausible that Ortsbo—should it catch fire and become fully integrated into our online lives—could become as influential as email or Facebook.

Ortsbo Inc. is owned by Intertainment Media Inc., which Lucatch grew from the seeds of that first venture he started back in university. Intertainment focuses on new, traditional and social media projects that help brands connect with consumers and, according to The Globe and Mail, Ortsbo has made Intertainment one of the hottest stocks this year on the TSX Venture Exchange.

Indeed, these are heady times at the company’s headquarters in Richmond Hill, Ontario. But when Lucatch speaks about the trajectory of his career, he eschews talk of stock valuations and dividends for topics like engagement, positive change and the value of our interactions with other people.

In 2000, Lucatch left ValueNet International, a company he started in 1995 and one of the first Internet ventures to go public in Canada, and devoted himself to helping charities raise money. Through this work, he had the opportunity to spend some time with Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York City.

“It was just after 9/11,” recalls Lucatch. “And what I learned from him is that decisions aren’t always popular, but they’re necessary. If you’re leading a team or a family or an organization, someone has to make the decisions.”

Jana Lucatch, David’s wife, is remarkably sanguine about the roller coaster of life with a husband who is also a fervent entrepreneur. “We go where life takes us,” she says. “It’s about keeping an open mind. A lot of people have their life agenda laid out, but not David. He is 100 percent driven by his passion for innovation. And he’s also passionate about breeding that next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Management students at UTSC are familiar with that passion. Lucatch has mentored many business-minded undergraduates on campus. He has also served on the Principal’s Alumni Advisory Committee, and in 2010 he received the Arbor Award for his contributions to the university community.

“You can’t gather wisdom without experience,” notes Lucatch. “To make the best decisions, you need the best information, and if someone like myself can provide young people with the information they need to help them avoid some of the pitfalls I hit along the way, I believe I’m doing a good thing.”

David Lucatch’s quest—in the words of Gene Simmons, “to take a sledgehammer to the Tower of Babel” — began with a bang. At the Beverly Hills Hotel event, KISS fans from 92 countries used Ortsbo.com to connect with their idols, setting a new world record in the process. Sure, the conversation had more to do with the onstage antics of a world-famous rock band rather than with something of geopolitical or educational consequence. But it was a conversation that heralded a momentous beginning.

Humans invented language to bring people together. We invented the Internet to do the same thing. With Ortsbo, language and the Internet have the potential — for the first time — to amplify each other’s strengths.

“Ortsbo has the power to make language sexy again,” says Lucatch. “It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s exciting. I can talk to you in one language and talk to another friend in another language. All of the old barriers are gone.”