By most accounts, Raymond Kurzweil is a high-tech talent. The products of his company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, have enabled the blind to work productively using text-recognizing computers and voice-response systems. He sold his first computer program to IBM while still a teenager, and his laurels include Inventor of the Year honors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988.
But for Kurzweil, chairman and CEO of KAI, talent has yet to translate into substantial corporate profit. The company didn't hit the black until last year. To boot, KAI's net sales in 1990-combined with those of two companies Kurzweil started and sold during the 1980s-amounted to less than $80 million. That's well below some observers' expectations for the trio.
Even so, some maintain a Kurzweil vision-computers that create documents in response to voice commands-could turn on the cash flow. Analysts estimate the market for such a product could reach $20 billion. Lured by such prospects, giant IBM and startup Dragon Systems are also pursuing the idea.
The first test for the Kurzweil brainchild, called Voice Report, will be 400 hospital emergency rooms.
Thus far, Kurzweil has found success in starting technology companies and auctioning them off to bidders: His first company, optical scanner maker Kurzweil Computer Products, was sold to Xerox in 1980 for $6 million. Though doubtless aspiring to mass-market impact, Kurzweil nonetheless claims satisfaction with the role of building a company then handing it off.
"My goal is to launch technologies and see them take hold," he says. "I don't have to run the organization myself forever."