By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Igor and Irina Ilyinsky want to share stories about the areas of the world they have come to love.
Earlier this year, the Scottsdale couple introduced ListenUp, a tech startup that combines crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to create hyperlocal stories and deliver them to users via audio in up to 22 languages.
“In general, the Phoenix area is filled with people who are not from here,” Igor says.
“Ultimately, it’s useful for those people as well as those who want to travel around here and learn about things. There’s an opportunity for everyone — locals and visitors — to benefit.”
The app shares with users everything the Valley has to offer through its culture, natural beauty and historic neighborhoods and destinations of interest. The free-to-use app also allows local businesses to participate and share their stories and details to attract a passerby for a small fee.
“ListenUp is the first audio platform that is going to tell you about where you are, wherever you are,” Irina says.
The product was born after a frustrating trip to Italy with their teenage daughters just before the pandemic.
The family was jetlagged and missed a guided tour in Rome. To learn about the city, Irina downloaded several apps — some of which she paid for — and traveled around the city. The apps didn’t provide the best experience, she says.
“We did the same thing in Florence,” she says. “We were strolling around the city until 2 a.m., trying to figure it out with our heads in our phones the whole time, not enjoying the city as much as we could.”
They realized there was a need for an open platform that would intelligently offer local information in a safe, screenless and customizable way.
“We realized the travel experience was not keeping up to date with technology. We saw a major hole in this category,” Igor says.
The family returned to the United States and, when the pandemic hit, Igor had free time to tinker with technology. He learned to create ListenUp.
“We know that audio is the new frontier, but audio content hasn’t changed in a century. ListenUp provides a solution, bringing forth contextual content based on whatever could be interesting to users depending on where they are, what they are doing, and about 20 other factors that digital devices can detect or guess.”
As an added incentive and benefit for storytellers, educators and social media users who post and share their favorite city finds, the founders have designed a blockchain-based incentivization model, where tokens will eventually be distributed in addition to experiences and benefits special to those in the ListenUp community. A user does not need to be set up with a cryptocurrency account, however, to experience or contribute to the audio app.
Coming to America
Igor and Irina are immigrants themselves. Irina was born in Minsk, Belarus, and raised in Chicago, while Igor was born in Odesa, Ukraine, and grew up in New York City. They both moved to the United States when they were 3, with few belongings.
“It’s a privilege to be able to help people learn about the places they visit or wherever they move to, especially refugees, such as those that recently arrived from Afghanistan or Ukraine,” Irina says.
“We don’t take for granted that we now live in a safe country. Globally, people are still displaced daily, and many are finding their way to Phoenix. As much as we want to offer entertainment to tourists, our work will also expedite the assimilation of refugees. It can be quite a culture shock to move from Afghanistan to a fluctuating tourist destination like Scottsdale, and we hope ListenUp can help make the city feel less intimidating and more exciting and soon familiar to those finding their way here.”
Irina says there are amazing stories to tell, and many visitors are missing out.
“It’s quite a different experience when you’re walking around and listening to stories about architecture, food, history, whatever you are interested in,” she says.
“Over time, this will curate to what you’re interested in. It’s a curated experience for everybody.”