NOTE: This was originally published in FORBES on Feb. 15th 2017.
For the last two years, my team and I have been building and commercializing a product that empowers the visually impaired by recognizing what they are looking at.
Now, ThirdEye is being acquired by TheBlindGuide. The acquiring company is led by a former Merck executive whose mother was visually impaired and they’re looking to use ThirdEye to help empower people by creating an organization centered around gathering and building tools for the visually impaired. In fact, they’re going to be hiring visually impaired and disabled programmers to embody the message of empowerment that ThirdEye has always stood for.
During our freshman year at Penn two years ago, Ben Sandler, Joe Cappadona, and I had started ThirdEye at a hackathon; we had built a Google Glass app that would verbally say aloud what’s in front of you when you said “Okay Glass. Recognize this.” Since then, there have been lots of twists and turns, many of which I’ve been detailing on this Forbes column. We had chances to present at CES and The National Wearables Conference, work with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, learn how to empathetically build products for people who are not us, pitch and have meetings with major CEOs and visionaries, and win competitions like the Wharton Business Plan Competition. We also had the opportunity with some of the smartest people I know, including my co-founders as well as Daniel Hanover, Nandeet Mehta, and David Ongchoco.
But most important than the thrill of trying to manage a startup during school while not dropping out was gaining empathy with the visually impaired population. Coming in, the reason Ben, Joe and I even decided to work on ThirdEye is that we believed that this technology that could help empower at least some aspects of this group’s lives by 10x. Understanding how visually impaired persons live their lives was not only a humbling exercise but perhaps more importantly, we realized that nobodies with very little resources (ThirdEye was completely bootstrapped) can do something that helps a disempowered group of people. In this regard, a large part of our experience with ThirdEye was figuring out how to get things that normally would have cost tens of thousands of dollars done for free by consistently asking for help and leveraging our student status.
As time went on though we started to realize that while we might have been the right team to start this product, we perhaps weren’t the right team to scale it to all the visually impaired persons around the world. While we became very successful at building products and launching them with very few resources, since we were students we had limited time and also limited experience with the regulatory healthcare space. When a few parties approached us about taking over ThirdEye we thought hard and decided that it would be for the best.
After a few months of talks with various companies, we decided on TheBlindGuide; given the leadership’s deep understanding of the visually impaired (through their current ecommerce business) and their expertise in healthcare, we decided that their team would be the better team to lead this product forward.
Ultimately, we were in talks with significantly larger organizations that would almost definitely have more resources, but for them ThirdEye would just be a rounding error; we’re confident, however, that TheBlindGuide will do everything it can to continue on with this product and take it to the next level and exemplify our vision.
The details of the deal will remain confidential but I shall remain onboard as an advisor and help transition the company to TheBlindGuide.
At this point, I’m excited to continue writing on this column about my and my peer’s experiences starting up during college. As I’ve said before many times, ThirdEye taught me significantly more than college in itself ever could. With that said, I’m excited to focus quite a lot of my time on empowering students to build–and more importantly–commercialize projects they’re working on.
Part of that equation will be Prototype Capital, a decentralized student-run venture capital fund that adds real value to student-run startups. After being a college founder myself, I understand the intricacies of starting up during college. With Prototype, we’re going to have campus partners around the country–and then in the world–so as to help empower as many students as possible.
College is a formative time for most people; with the fund and the brand we build around it, we hope to help students realize that they can do what they want to do rather than just follow the path that someone else presents to them.