Business Today

Breaking The Barrier Of Blindness

The Bengaluru-based company helps set up smart classes for the visually impaired
Sonal Khetarpal   New Delhi     Print Edition: September 22, 2019
Breaking The Barrier Of Blindness
(From left) Thinkerbell Co-founders -- Aman Srivastava, Dilip Ramesh and Sanskriti Dawle \ Photograph by Lantern Camera

1) Founders

Sanskriti Dawle, Aman Srivastava, Dilip Ramesh and Saif Shaikh - all of them engineering graduates from BITS Pilani, Goa.

2) The Concept

Not many college projects turn into full-fledged businesses, but the four managed to develop a self-learning device for the visually impaired as part of their research project. Initially, they used a credit-card-sized computer called Raspberry Pi and audio guides to make Braille learning easy. But what they thought was a rudimentary prototype got an overwhelming response when tested in a Hyderabad blind school. The peers had addressed a big gap in this space as Braille is a tactile language and a teacher must hold a student's hand to teach her the alphabet. But this kind of one-on-one interaction means the rest of the class is idle most of the time; it delays the learning process. The peers, therefore, decided to leverage technology further and build a scalable learning solution. They also decided to name their device Annie, after Anne Sullivan, who taught the legendary Helen Keller.

3) How Annie Works

Four years and seven iterations later, Annie features a Braille display and keyboard as well as a digital Braille slate and offers audio-guided interactive lessons to ensure self-learning via gamified quizzes and exams. Teachers can use the companion app called Helios to monitor progress and schedule lessons so that all students can learn simultaneously. Besides English, the audio-tactile content is currently available in five Indian languages. The company has set up its manufacturing unit in Pune and can produce 500 units every quarter.

4) Revenue and Growth

In the domestic market, Thinkerbell sells Annie as a smart class solution that consists of Annie toolkits, supporting infrastructure (server and software with localised content) and materials for a teacher's training programme. The average cost of setting up each classroom is Rs 10 lakh, and the biggest customers are government-run special schools and philanthropic organisations. Last year, the start-up installed 20 Braille-teaching devices in a government school in Ranchi in collaboration with the government of Jharkhand. Other key customers included the government of Telangana and L.V. Prasad Eye Hospital in Hyderabad.

In February this year, Thinkerbell landed its first international customer, the Wales Sensory Service. It has also tied up with the Royal National Institute of the Blind to curate content and enter the UK market. In developed markets, Annie is sold as a single device, priced at ?700. The company is planning to enter the US market in 2020 and aims to sell 4,000 products over the next two years.

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