This World Disability Day, here are startups striving to make life easier for the disabled
Looking for love or the right clothing? While most startups bypass those who are disabled, a clutch of entrepreneurs have set aside cash and raised funds to build apps and devices for them. Loaded with voice commands & gesture control, they help autistic children communicate and aid adults in finding partners.
Founder: Sunil J Mathew
Year & place of founding: 2014, Kochi
What they do: Has developed Android apps that helps visually challenged and elderly users. Its Kuluk is an app that helps users to make calls to specific people through gesture control. For instance, with one shake it could call the user’s mother and with two quick shakes it could call the father. Its `item-seeker’ helps users to tag different things at home or office so that they can be found easily. The MapSeeker app is a road navigation aid to find the nearest ATMs, police stations and bus stops. A blind Android developer is a part of the team that developed the product.
Why did they start it: Mathew believes that technology must be made ‘accessible’ and inclusive. He has been working with visually challenged people for more than one and half decades through an NGO and coaches the national visually challenged football team. His NGO also gives training to make visually challenged people employable.
Funding source and amount: Funded by Mathew who also runs an IT company Systica that is profitable.
Challenges: Has found it difficult to raise money because there is no revenue model as of now. “The challenge is greater because most visually challenged people fall in the low income group and hence cannot pay up,” says Mathew.
Most rewarding moment: When the company won the mBillionth South Asia Award for inclusive solution.
Founders: Kunal Kamble, Laxmikant Banjarey, Ganesh Sonawane and Dewaj Baruah
Year & place of founding: June 2015, Pune
Funding source and amount: Rs 90 lakh, Anoop Hingorani and Indian Angel Network
What they do: Have developed a wheel chair that allows senior citizens and those with limited mobility to access shower and commode in a secure and convenient manner. It has a tool-free height adjuster and replaceable biodegradable seat that ensures hygiene. It even has an Android app control.
Why did they start it: At an annual college festival competition organized by an NGO, Sonawane and friends designed a bathroom-friendly wheel chair. After college, Sonawane took up a corporate job. “But then the NGO got in touch with me and asked if I was interested in building the product,” he says. He took up the offer.
Challenges: Faced cash crunches several times. “Conventional VCs think we are a social enterprise while the social funds think we are a for-profit that is making a costly product for the middle and upper classes,” Sonawane says.
Most rewarding moment: “It gives us a feeling that we are doing some good to society even as we look to make profits. When our first customer told us how the product changed his life after a spinal injury restricted his free movement, it was bliss,” Sonawane says.
Founders: Gaurav Mittal, Vaibhav Asthana and Shaswat Jena
Year & place of founding: 2014, Bengaluru
What they do: Has developed a smartphone add-on Qwerty keyboard for visually-challenged. It has hot keys for specific functions and can magnify the screen. Mittal says that most visually challenged people are faster on these smartphones than regular users are on normal touchscreen phones. The keypad also has a talk back feature. The unit costs Rs 2,400.
Why did they start it: When he was working with Citrix as an ethical hacker, Mittal participated in a CSR activity organized by the National Association for the Blind (NAB). Mittal designed a prototype keyboard for the blind. NAB exhorted the Citrix employees to contribute more than a day of their lives to help the visually challenged. Mittal went on to learn electronics so that he could build the prototype. Citrix gave him $3,500 and a small lab to work on the product. “It is not the vision that bothers visually challenged people, but the fact that they are dependent on others for daily tasks,” says Mittal.
Funding source and amount: Rs 8 lakh from Citrix, Microsoft, Intel and Indian government
Challenges: Lack of funds has forced them to move from a rented office space to Mittal’s flat. “While we have orders for 1,400 units, we don’t have money to manufacture the product,” says Mittal, adding that the company has filed for three patents.
Most rewarding moment: At a school for the blind that Mittal visited to test the prototype, he found the kids preparing for civil service. “That the smartphones could help them in accessing study materials from across the country made them feel on par with others preparing for the civil service,” says Mittal.
Founders: Surabhi Srivastava and Shyam Shah
Year & place of founding: August 2015, Mumbai
What they do: Developed a smart digital Braille assistant that helps visually challenged surf the Web, work on Excel sheets and use social networking platforms. The device acts as a note-taker; the output can be read out by the device.
Why did they start it: Srivastava, an IIT Bombay graduate, says she found that the difficulty of access to content that is Braille friendly prevents most visually challenged people from acquiring the skills of others.
Funding source and amount: Rs 1.25 crore from angel investors and grant from social justice ministry.
Challenges: Srivastava says the hardware ecosystem in India is non-existent and the company had to do a lot of paperwork to import parts.
Most rewarding moment: When the social justice ministry recognized them and gave a grant. “And when visually challenged people reach out to us saying that we have improved their quality of life,” says Srivastava.
Founders: Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan
Year & place of founding: Jan 2016, Mumbai
What they do: Matchmaking for disabled individuals through Inclov mobile app. The app gives information on the type of disability, level of dependence and medication of its users. It has voice-based command, provision to add textual descriptions of images, and AI and voice command-powered solutions for those with cerebral palsy.
Why did they start: Khona, who had started a matrimony agency, identified a huge gap when it came to the specially abled population.
Funding source and amount: Bootstrapped (Raised Rs 6 lakhs through WishBerry)
Challenges: Disabled women still find it difficult to find partners and the company is fighting that. Khona found it difficult to convince investors that her company was not an NGO. “We are not doing this for charity. This is about making social sexy,” says Khona.
Most rewarding moment: With more than 3,000 users and 1,000 matches today, Inclov witnessed the first wedding in May 2016 when a specially abled man, who has been searching for a partner for 10 years, found his match in 10 days.
Future plans: They intend to release an iOS version and app in Indian languages. Khona is also planning video calling option for those with severe disabilities.
Founder: Ajit Narayanan
Year & place of founding: 2007, Chennai
What they do: Apps to help the specially abled communicate effectively
Funding source and amount: Rs 10 lakh govt grant, Rs 25 lakh govt loan, Rs 30 lakh from EXIM bank, Rs 3.3 crore from The Mumbai Angels, Inventus Capital and others
Why did they start: After a Silicon Valley stint, Narayanan returned to India in 2007 and set up Invention Labs. “I wanted to use technology to benefit the people in India,” said Narayanan. After meeting Rajul Padmanabhan, director, Vidya Sagar, a rights-based organisation for the disabled, he decided to build affordable technology for the community.
Challenges: Building a prototype was technically and emotionally taxing. Time was spent interacting with children who had autism or cerebral palsy.
Most rewarding moment: A child who was asked to use the picture-based augmentative and alternate learning app uttered her first words: “I hate this thing!” Narayanan was one of the few to interact with Apple CEO Tim Cook during his recent visit. Apple has shown interest in promoting the app.
What’s new: The free speech app helps break the language barrier. Using pictures and an easy interface, the app predicts grammar, helping children with autism, cerebral palsy and other learning disorders construct sentences.
Future plans: Release the free speech app in multiple languages; also, enter China given their inclination to learn English.
Move Ability Clothing (MAC)
Founders: Joe Ikareth, Murielle Ikareth
Year & place of founding: 2015, Kottayam
What they do: Clothing solutions for differently abled people that address need of ease for dressing and undressing. Also, ergonomically and personalized designs based on the disability.
Why did they start: Joe, a designer and Murielle, a movement therapist, saw their daughter with special needs struggle with her clothing. They started designing clothes for her realised a bigger need.
Funding source and amount: Bootstrapped
Challenges: Standardization is a big challenge. “Each person has a different kind of disability, different body structure and unique requirements. Once we achieve scale, we will bring in some standardization,” said Joe.
Future plans: “The purpose is to serve a marginalised population and do it in a manner that creates social change,” said Joe. They hope external investors will help scale up operations.
Founders: Anil Prabhakar, Pradeep Thangappan, Namita Jacob, Shankar S
Year & place of founding: 2015, Chennai
What they do: Convert ideas at prototype stage to products; brought out Tactilegraph that enables mass printing of tactile books and iGest, a wearable that recognises gestures to market
Why did they start it: Anil Prabhakar, professor at IIT-M brought the rest together to create assistive technology for education and communication. “We realised many ideas get killed at the prototype stage. Our job is to build a product that can be used,” said Thangappan.
Funding source and amount: Rs 10 lakh from Nasscom Foundation, Rs 10 lakh from IIT Incubation cell
Challenges: Sourcing basic equipment has been a challenge. Also, despite subsidising products upto 30%, people find it difficult to pay.
Most rewarding moment: The amazing response to their books based on tactile materials from children and schools. “The level of interaction and the questions the children asked was overwhelming,” said Thangappan.