According to the World Health Organisation, around 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Out of this, 2-4 percent lives with significant difficulties. In India, alone, there are between 70-100 million differently abled people. In a country where struggle is a daily constant, life is even more difficult for the differently abled, and while things are slowly changing in terms of making infrastructure, education and employment more accessible, lack of awareness and the social stigma attached to disability, makes it difficult for many to lead normal lives. However, some startups are tackling this issue and making products and services which cater specifically to those with disabilities. We take a look at these startups that specialise in assistive technologies:
One of the biggest challenges for those with visual impairment is walking around in unfamiliar places, avoiding obstacles, and reading any form of literature which is not in Braille. This is what led, Gunjan Gupta, CEO and Director Tellmate Helper, to design Tellmate while in college. “When I interacted with blind people and came to know about their pain points, I was touched and felt that this was a problem that I should tackle. It led me to the world of assistive technologies, and I am pursuing it as my full-time job.”
The founder: Gunjan Gupta
The product: TellMate is a wearable vision device in the form of glasses that converts images to sound and transfers it into the ears of the wearer, using hearing aids. This then allows the person to move around without obstacles, read print and figure his/her way around. Tellmate’s camera sees printed text, converts it to digital text using Optical Character Recognition and whispers this into the wearer’s ear using text to speech synthesis.
Finding funding and other challenges: Without any guidance in the form of direction, or funding, Gunjan initially found it difficult to figure out how to start. In 2015, when the government launched the Digital India scheme, Gunjan was among the Top 20 at Intel-DST Innovate for Digital India Challenge. This was where he found support from various partners and stakeholders. “Here I got technical as well as business support with a small fund which helped me for well beginning of my idea and to validate my Business Model,” Gunjan explains.
Building a team was a challenge and it took Gunjan 18 months to get people to work on the idea. Getting hardware at the cost that they could afford, while ensuring that the device was affordable, was another challenge. In addition, since all assistive technologies currently available are in English, language has been a hurdle. With the majority of visually impaired people not expected to understand the language, the team needs to find means of bringing in regional languages to the product.
While Tellmate does not have an investor yet, it has won The Economic Times – Power of Ideas 2015, DST-Lockheed Martin India Innovation Growth Programme 2016, MEA -Niti Aayog National Contest on Social Innovation, and the prize money that they get from these competitions, has helped them run the company. Tellmate’s team of Coders and Programmers, has also launched an online portal called MATLAB Helper (MATLABHelper.com) where they provide programming assistance to students and professionals, and use the revenue to support Tellmate.
Future plans: The team plans to add Navigational Functionality to their future products. This will allow the wearer to voice his/her destination. They would get voice guidance along with obstruction detection and be able to use public transport and cabs, just like normal people.
Most of the products that are designed to help the differently abled have been developed in the west, where income constraints are low and price is not a factor in product development. Those who live in low income areas do not have access to these products, which are priced in the range of USD 1000 – USD 13000. This was what Surabhi Shrivastava and Shyam Shah, Co-founder of Innovision found out during their visit to a blind school in the country. They also realised that the falling literacy rates (10%) and employment (70%) were due to limited resources, among the visually impaired. This propelled them to launch Innovision, aimed at developing assistive technology solutions for empowering the disabled, with a specific focus on affordability.
The founders: Surabhi Shrivastava and Shyam Shah
The product: Innovision has developed BrailleMe – a low cost Smart Braille Assistant targeted at Digital Accessibility of the visually impaired community. BrailleMe enables reading via a tactile screen comprised of electromechanically actuated pins (digital output), typing via Braille keypad, and navigation of digital content. It works like a Braille tablet in standalone mode with an SD card or USB drive, and acts like an assistive technology complimentary aid when paired with a computer, smart phone etc, via Bluetooth.
Finding funding and other challenges: Innovision has been funded by SINE – the IIT Bombay incubator, and angel investors in senior management positions at Essar Group, JSW Fund, JP Morgan and Aarti Industries in personal capacities. They have also been awarded the USISTEF (US India Science & Technology Endowment Fund) grant – collaboration between the Indian Department of Science & Technology and the US Department of State.
The team found it challenging to raise funds initially, since hardware development has longer development cycles, and most investors are inexperienced with profitable social ventures. However, their association with IIT Bombay and SINE has helped in getting support and bringing initial credibility to the venture.
Future plans: Innovision’s focus would be on assistive technology products in the future too. “We believe this sector has been untapped both in India and globally. Technological innovation can bring about significant impact in the lives of the persons with disability, thus helping them realise their potential,” Surabhi explains. The next product in the pipeline is also going to be targeted at the visually impaired community and will bring a wider range of services within their reach. The product is in the initial R&D stages.
Finding love in a country where the basic necessities of everyday life are a challenge for the differently abled, is an extremely difficult task and in India, only five percent of the differently abled get married. That is where Inclov comes in. Inclov started off as a boutique matchmaking agency for the differently abled, called Wanted Umbrella, which was set up by Mumbai based youngsters Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan. The Inclov app has 10,000 users, with 5,000 matches and 47 percent of them are actively using Inclov to look for a date or life partner.
The founders: Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan
The product: Inclov, the app, matches people on the basis of the kind of disability, cure availability, medical dependence and lifestyle choices, and as Shankar categorically puts it, not on the basis of their looks, caste, religion, or salary. “What is most important is that our users find people who match and understand their condition,” he explains. But that does not mean that it is exclusively for the differently abled. Inclov is an inclusive app, specifically built so as there have been many cases of people with disabilities finding their life partners in people who don’t have any disabilities. Inclov also organises Social Spaces, which is an offline meet-up where Inclov’s users can get together and meet each other.
Finding funding: In August 2015, the team raised Rs 6,15,000 from 143 people from across the globe, through the crowd-funding platform, Wishberry. Half of the funders were disabled, or knew someone with disabilities. They also raised an angel round in July 2016 and are currently looking to raise a pre-series A round.
Future plans: On the app front, Inclov is looking to release the iOS app in two months, the web portal for matchmaking in four months, adding multiple language options, and at going global next year. With Social Spaces, the team is looking to cover all metro cities this year. Inclov will be hosting their next meet-up at Delhi’s Kitty Su on June, 25. This is the first time that such a meet-up is happening at a night club. What is even more special is that the DJ for the evening is someone who has Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) and is a wheelchair user himself!
An area of extreme difficulty for those with disabilities people and for the elderly, is accessing wash rooms and toilets. Arcatron Mobility, a start-up based in Pune that designs shower and commode wheelchairs, addresses this problem. “Assisted living technology is a USD 279 billion dollar market globally which is in a nascent stage. Hence, the opportunity to improve lives of people using technology, in a fairly large market with less competition, was too lucrative not to pursue,” explains Ganesh Sonawane, Co-Founder and CEO, Arcatron Mobility.
The founders: Kunal Kamble (Co-founder and VP, Design), Laxmikant Banjarey (Co-founder and CTO); Ganesh Sonawane (Co-founder and CEO) and Dewaj Baruah (Co-founder and VP- Manufacturing).
The products: Arcatron Mobility is currently making shower and commode wheelchairs, which are named SSS100 and SAS100. These will soon be replaced by Frido, a self-propelled multipurpose hygiene wheelchair, which assembles within 60 seconds, does not require any tools, and fits in a suitcase. The wheelchair will have a stainless steel body, swivel full armrests, height adjustable full footrests, front/side access for hygiene, height adjustable casters, quick release shower big wheels, and many other conveniences.
Finding funding and other challenges: According to Sonawane, finding funding was a very difficult task. “We were bootstrapped till we reached a stage of market validation,” he explains. It was then that they got seed funding from Sudhir Mehta, MD of Pune based Pinnacle Industries, and Anoop Hingorani from the Indian Angel Network. Apart from challenges in finding funding, the team also finds difficulties in converting their digital designs to physical prototypes, because of lack of resources. There is also a shortage of high quality spare parts in India.
Future plans: The team will be launching Frido by end of 2017. Arcatron Mobility is also working on a smart wheelchair called “NINU” which may take the shape of an elder care robot going forward.