Startup Aims to Broaden World for Visually Impaired

Published in UT San Diego, June 1, 2015

Seeing is believing.

Many entrepreneurs get the idea for their company from their personal experience. When Suman Kanuganti and Yuja Chang, San Diego engineers, had a longtime friend Matt Brock who lost his sight, the three started talking about how they could use Google Glass (a type of wearable technology) to help blind and visually impaired people become more mobile and independent.

The conversation began in January 2014 and by April, Kanuganti and team had developed a prototype that involved utilizing Google Glass along with personalized assistance from a remote agent. This was the beginning of Aira. At the time, Kanuganti was a student in the MBA program at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management where he learned about the lean startup model, and the concept was also being introduced at Intuit where he was a development manager. Lean startup emphasizes the importance of talking with customers early in the product development process, building a minimal viable product and then getting customer feedback before making something more complex.

Importantly, Aira was Kanuganti’s second startup. The first one had failed, he said, because the team had focused on developing cool technology and hadn’t done enough research on regulatory issues that turned out to be significant. This time, he did a lot of market research that included reaching out to organizations like the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the host of an annual “Dining in the Dark” event. At their May 2014 dinner in San Diego, he demonstrated the product, and serendipitously, the speaker was Larry Bock, one of our favorite entrepreneurs, the founder of many successful biotech companies including Illumina and a venture capitalist. Bock is also visually impaired.

“I have tried every assisted device you can imagine and with many of them you stand out like a sore thumb,” Bock said. “Google Glass is the first inconspicuous device for the vision-impaired community, and so when I met Suman and Yuja, I was interested in what they were doing.”

Over the next few months, Bock conducted due diligence that included meeting with TechTalk, a group of 30 tech-savvy blind people in Los Angeles. “I had thought that this would be useful to people who had a late onset vision problem like myself so they knew what it was like to see the world. What came out of this was that congenitally blind people wanted it just as much.” He also personally tested the product.

“For a person with my type of condition, I order the same thing every time at Chipotle because I can’t see the overhead menu. With Aira, the agent can read the menu to me. Over time, the agents can learn my preferences so they know how to narrow the choices,” he said. “GPS gets you to the door but can’t tell you where the door is, and it’s useless indoors. Aira can also help with recognizing friends, finding open seats on a bus, and looking for queues.”

In January, Bock Family Ventures, Lux Capital and ARCH Venture Partners invested $325,000 in a seed round, and Bock became executive chairman. In addition, the company has received a $300,000 research grant from Bock.

Aira agents, who can work from anywhere with an Internet connection, use a real-time interactive cloud-based dashboard that can process live data streams from cameras, GPS and other sensor systems from wearable platforms such as Google Glass and Vuzix. The revenue plan is a subscription model based on usage.

According to their market research, about 20.6 million people in the U.S. report that they have trouble seeing, even with glasses or contacts, or they are blind. In San Diego, they believe there are about 75,000 visually impaired or blind people. Ultimately, they also plan to develop their own hardware that will be less expensive than Google Glass because it will be more tailored to the needs of their customers.

This is a busy time for the company. In early May, Aira was one of 26 startups and one of the five launch-stage companies accepted into the EvoNexus incubator out of 212 applicants. The next big step is the launch of a beta trial in July with at least 100 users.

“We understand user scenarios and the type of help that can offer. The beta test will help us define the proper ratio of agents to users, we’ll learn how often people use the service and how much we can charge,” said Bock, who added that they still have room for additional people in the trial.

Rule No. 413

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. — Jonathan Swift

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