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The Blue Canoe team. (Blue Canoe Photo

Blue Canoe, a Bellevue, Wash. startup that makes an app for learning English, just raised $2.5 million in seed funding.

Lots of tools help people learn English, but Blue Canoe says it is a little different. The B2B startup sells to English training institutes and companies with global workforces that need their employees to be strong English speakers. Blue Canoe’s customers include multi-national corporations and English training institutions across the U.S., Japan and China.

The app shows how people progress. (Blue Canoe Photo)

To help with the “last mile” of pronunciation learning, Blue Canoe incorporates the Color Vowel System, a method used by top institutions like Harvard and the Peace Corps that focuses on visual, kinesthetic, musical, and rhythmic parts of the brain to train language skills. The startup digitized the system to create a “virtual AI teacher” in its mobile app with machine learning and speech recognition capabilities. Users only need to spend 10 minutes a day on the app and get personalized feedback, “rewiring their brains to allow them to learn how to correctly pronounce English,” the company said.

“Learning to speak English clearly is much harder than learning to read or write it, and for millions of people around the world it is a barrier to greater economic success,” Sarah Daniels, Blue Canoe CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. She continued: “English language training companies can now expand their business and be more successful in graduating students who are fluent speakers, and multi-national corporations can help their employees be more productive team members.”

Leading the round was Tsingyuan Ventures, with participation from Qualcomm Ventures LLC, Fantail Ventures and others. The 10-person company has now raised $3.9 million in its lifetime.

Blue Canoe is backed by Seattle startup studio Kernel Labs, and it was the first startup accepted to the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence Accelerator. Daniels is a former marketing executive at companies like DreamBox Learning, Market Leader, and Story2.

Blue Canoe cited data from TESOL International Association, which found more than 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently learning English as a second language, with 400 million in China alone. Executives called the English language learning market a $40 billion business opportunity.

“Blue Canoe is addressing a critical gap in the $40 billion global market for English language training, and their AI solution is unique and effective,” said Eric Rosenblum, partner with Tsingyuan Ventures. “We’re excited about Blue Canoe’s team and solution, which combines AI technology, a proven methodology, and valuable data.”

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