This story is sponsored by Dell
Engineering students Aman Srivastav and Sanskriti Dawle were keen to work on a socially relevant project. While exploring various options, they stumbled on the fact that Braille literacy was uncharted territory and a simple technology solution could address that challenge, and make a huge difference in the field of education for the visually impaired. After initial research, they developed a raw basic model. “It couldn’t even be called a prototype. But when we did a rough trial and gave the device to visually-impaired children, their excitement told us we were doing something right. This was in 2013.”
And that’s how Project Mudra – a Braille ed-tech startup – came about. A year later, they further improvised on the idea and presented at Pycon 2014 – the annual gathering for the community using and developing the open-source Python programming language. “The validation and encouragement that we got from people pushed us to explore this problem more and come up with a better product,” says Aman, who is also the COO.
After researching and developing their idea further, the duo shared the initial prototype with the Devnar School for the blind and L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI), both based out of Hyderabad. After getting user feedback, they built and fabricated a new design, only to be forced back to go to the drawing board because of many new challenges. Armed with the learnings, they redesigned everything from scratch, submitted research papers, participated in more contests, all of which helped them unveil an enhanced version of the prototype.
Their venture gained further momentum when they won the Great Tech Rocketship award by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) in March 2016. The win gave them the chance to showcase their prototype to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – Prince William and Kate Middleton – during the royals’ India tour in April this year.
When Kate Middleton learnt to type out ‘George’ in Braille, Project Mudra came into media spotlight. Aman shares, “We had to demo the product 10 days before we were to showcase it to the royal couple. The first demo failed, as UKTI wanted a new design and a product that both looked and felt good. A day before the actual event, our demo device looked great but barely worked. It was a tense situation. We worked through the night right until people actually started walking in to the convention hall the morning of the event. Luckily, we managed to freshen up just in time.”
Since unveiling the first prototype, the device has undergone multiple product design, hardware, and software iterations. “It’s been a long and rewarding journey,” exclaims Aman.
Project Mudra is currently based out of Bangalore and has onboarded four employees and five interns. Aman says, “We are all engineering graduates from BITS Pilani, something we are proud of since we were dangerously close to being the stereotypical 'college dropout' startup founders till graduating a couple of months ago.” Project Mudra was formally instituted as a startup in June 2016, and Aman and the rest of the team graduated in August.
The startup’s first flagship product, Annie, helps in early schooling of visually impaired users via gamified audio lessons over a Braille-based hardware.
Most visual aids for the visually impaired are designed assuming that the users are Braille literate. Annie is designed to address the pain point of low braille literacy rate among the visually-impaired by helping them learn how to read, write and type in Braille, thus addressing a vital gap,
Aman says, “We have made the overall process of Braille learning more innovative and efficient through a combination of our hardware and software technologies and our content. We enable one teacher to teach more than one student simultaneously. Our technology can also be used by individual users to learn Braille by themselves. The gamified audio based lessons we deliver over our hardware can be used to kickstart further education of the user.”
In developed countries, Project Mudra is targeting visually-impaired customers since they have federal funds allocated for investment in their education, which includes buying an educational aid. In developing countries, they are primarily looking at selling the device to schools and non-profits working for the visually impaired. The startup is also looking to involve CSR projects who can help them reach out to the end user.
Revealing Project Mudra’s monetisation strategy, “We are planning a product sales and a recurrent content pay-as-you-go revenue model, something on the lines of Amazon Kindle. At the outset, it will be a B2C strategy in developed countries and B2B in developing countries.”
Currently in the pre-production phase, Annie is two months away from a formal launch. “We aren’t bullish on sales yet. The journey so far has been a collaborative effort. We have piloted the product at differently-abled schools and relevant organisations and have bagged 20 pre-orders already. We also plan to launch a ‘patron programme’ where individuals or companies can sponsor the devices for deserving blind students.”
Delving on their experience as studentpreneurs, the COO says, “The industry response has been great in India and abroad. The startup ecosystem has definitely helped us, connected us with a lot of partners and given us opportunities to get us to the stage we are at presently.” According to Aman, the biggest challenge so far has been trying to convince their families that it was okay not to pursue higher studies or take up jobs in large organisations even though they had job offers on hand.
Currently, Project Mudra is in the process of raising angel investments. Aman believes that as they near the release of their product in the market, the challenges will be around certifications, IP, manufacturing and capital. “It is here where small wins and industry validation count,” he adds.
Interestingly, even before Project Mudra was formally instituted as a startup, industry experts saw the potential in their idea. “After we demoed the product we got to pitch our startup. It was a humbling and exciting experience to see industry stalwarts like Anand Mahindra and Mohandas Pai and investment firms like Indian Angel Network and Mumbai Angels share interest in our idea.”
They have been recognised at various industry forums like Sandbox Startups 500K Biz Launchpad by the Deshpande Foundation, a tech grant from GIZ at empoWer, Conquest 2016, an international startup conclave organised by BITS Pilani, the Mass Challenge UK and now the Dell Startup Challenge. “The wins are crucial for startups like ours. They help keep the team morale high, and tell the world there’s merit in our idea.” The Project Mudra team hopes to capitalise on the win and the possibility of collaborating with Dell Foundation which does a lot of work in the area of education.
The startup is small enough for everybody to do a little bit of everything, says Aman. “But we've also been working together long enough to know each other's strengths. Sanskriti Dawle is the quintessential go-getter who handles fundraising, partnerships and enjoys being the team's go-to solderer. I am like the jack of all trades, master of some. Dilip Ramesh is the all-star programmer who ran a charity in his past avatar and now runs the product team. Saif Shaikh is the in-house mechanical whiz at Project Mudra.“
So how integral is technology at Project Mudra?
“From an engineer’s perspective, we believe technology is inherently more scalable and should be used to address the developmental problems that countries like India face. But, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, tech shouldn’t be force fit to solve all problems. At Project Mudra, we are trying to crack a tough social problem using technology. For us, design and technology are at the very heart of creating the best ed-tech experience for the visually impaired.”