Mumbai-based tech startup’s flagship product BrailleMe is making digital content accessible, affordable and available to the visually challenged.
According to a study published in The Lancet, the number of blind people across the world is set to triple to 115 million by 2050, due to a growing ageing population. Meanwhile, a report by Rehab Council of India reveals that Braille literacy rates have dropped from 50 percent to less than 10 percent in the last three decades. In developing countries, including India, the number is much worse — less than 2-3 percent.
In the modern world, this could lead to a huge disconnect. For majority of the resources available today are in digital form, be it in education or others.
In 2015, IIT Bombay alumni Surabhi Srivastava and Shyam Shah founded Innovision to provide digital access to the differently abled struggling to deal with limited reach and high costs. With its technological innovation, the startup is targeting the untapped market of Braille-enabled digital devices in developing countries to help create an inclusive world. This will help the visually impaired community across the world access education and training, and increase their employment opportunities.
Creating an inclusive world
The Innovision story started when Shyam visited a few schools for the visually impaired.
“We were introduced first hand to the challenges faced by the community when Shyam went to a few schools with a relative. There the problem of declining literacy (less than 10 percent) and employment (less than 30 percent) faced by the visually impaired was brought to his attention,” says Surabhi Srivastava, Co-founder, Innovision.
The duo decided to leverage technology to empower persons with disability and the startup was incubated in SINE (Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship), IIT Bombay.
Innovision worked on a flagship product, BrailleMe, a low-cost smart Braille assistant developed to provide digital accessibility to the visually impaired. BrailleMe enables reading via a tactile screen comprising electromechanically actuated pins (digital output), typing via a Braille keypad (input) and navigation of digital content. The device works as a Braille tablet in standalone mode with an SD card or USB drive and also like an assistive technology device on pairing with digital devices including a computer, laptop or smartphone via Bluetooth.
BrailleMe’s secret sauce
The low-cost Make-in-India device faces global competition from audio-based assistive technology software as well as existing electronic Braille devices available in the market. The audio segment comprises screen reader software such as JAWS and NVDA among others.
Braille device companies, including Freedom Scientific and Humanware, cumulatively sell about 10,000 units annually in developed countries with a market penetration of less than 1 percent due to significantly high costs.
But BrailleMe’s USP is that its unique actuator (designed in house) for Braille cells is based on magnetism instead of piezoelectricity, which used in existing electronic Braille products (priced at over $3,000) available in the market today.
This technological innovation, which is patent filed, provides a 10x price advantage over competitors (from $3,000 to $300), making it affordable for low-income users.
Vision for the future
The company is currently run by a 10-member team, including the founders, the product team, and Sudesh Bandekar, who is visually impaired and responsible for in-house user expertise and testing.
In early 2016, Innovision had raised an angel investment from investors in personal capacities and SINE along with the US India Science & Technology Endowment Fund.
Innovision is currently in the design for manufacturing stage and is gearing up for field deployment and long-term pilot testing for BrailleMe.
“We are gearing up for India launch of the device towards the end of 2017 and are looking at going global by mid-2018,” Surabhi reveals.
The price for the Indian market is expected to be in the range of Rs 20,000-Rs 25,000, with differentiated pricing for the global market and an initial focus on the US and European markets.
Using the power of technology to empower the differently abled, Innovision’s single-minded aim remains to develop “affordable assistive technology solutions” for users in low-income settings including India.