Note: This article was originally published in FORBES under FORBES Entrepreneurs.
This is the first article in a series about how a group of students at Penn created a non-profit organization commercializing a product that helps the visually impaired recognize what they are looking at.
Think about what you did yesterday. Have something in mind? Now think about how that something would be different if you were blind…. Difficult to imagine, no? You see, we often take our eyes for granted, when in reality we’re almost dependent on sight. In fact, the lives of visually impaired persons are significantly different than our own, with independence being one of the main problems. But what if we could change that? What if we could empower visually impaired persons by allowing them to recognize what they are looking at?
For the last year, a team of four students and I have been building ThirdEye Technologies: a non-profit organization where we are commercializing a product that visually impaired persons can use to recognize exactly what they are looking at.
Here’s how it works
Using ThirdEye, we hope to empower the visually impaired to go about their days with more independence than they ever had before.
“Unlike conventional interventions for the blind, which may involve invasive surgeries or the use of seeing eye dogs, who can only provide limited information about the user’s surroundings, ThirdEye provides a simple and safe way for the visually impaired to collect objective information from the environment that can improve decision making and increase efficiency. They join a hot industry of wearable technologies that is also being tackled by companies like IBM and Apple. However, ThirdEye has shown that being a large, well-known company is not a requirement for technological innovation” writes our partner The Michelson Medical Research Foundation.
In fact, our small size allowed us to move faster and bring a better product to market. Here’s how.
At the beginning, ThirdEye was just a simple project I was working on with Ben Sandler and Joe Cappadona–computer science friends–in addition to attending school as undergraduates. In fact, we had built the prototype of ThirdEye in a weekend hackathon–an event where hundreds of “hackers” collect to build a cool product with their team in 36 hours.
My “team” was just two friends who I had met during our New Student Orientation for freshmen and who I didn’t know well. None of us had ever programmed in Android (which we needed to make the final product), we were competing against some of the best hackers in the world, and we had absolutely no idea how to build our own product.
A bunch of hype for nothing?
By the end of the hackathon though, we were able to build a working prototype; the sheer practicality of our product along with the wow-factor–every judge seemed to laugh when our app returned back “5 US Dollar Bill” when we pointed the glasses at a bill and said “Okay Glass, recognize this”–earned us not only a finalist spot in the hackathon but also four or five press articles right after the event. A student journalist–who would actually end up joining our team later–asked in one article whether 3 Penn freshmen had built the future of vision at PennApps X. We were the featured story on the front page of the UPenn newspaper within the first two months of school.
But really? Up to this point, we just had a prototype–which didn’t even work some of the time–and yet people were reaching out to us and asking about how much “revenue you guys made in the last quarter.” As Ben says, “a little bit of mentorship and Google allowed us to create a cool prototype on a Saturday night….”
Is this thing even useful?
At this point, we decided to try to commercialize the product. In high school, Ben, Joe, and I had built a few products, and so, coming into college, we were all looking forward to continue working on entrepreneurial projects. But what we didn’t know was that the opportunity to start something new would arise in the first month of school.
Now the question became whether the product was something that visually impaired persons needed or wanted. Was this even something worth working on? It seemed obvious, but we decided to test the market. If nothing else, it would provide us with more feedback.
We cold-emailed around a dozen organizations that work with the visually impaired around Philadelphia, told them what we had built as freshmen students, and asked whether they would be willing to give us some feedback on our prototype. Only two responded. One of them didn’t end up wanting to meet afterwards.
We had only one lead, but that one lead just happened to be the largest organization for visually impaired persons in the country: The National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
Taking the bus to Baltimore in the middle of midterm week, we briefly explained how our product worked to the assistive technology department lead at the NFB, who was indeed sight impaired. She put on Glass, held out a bottle of Lysol in her hand, Ben said “Okay Glass, Recognize This,” and after three stressful seconds, we all heard a computerized woman’s voice say “Blue Lysol Cleaning Wipes Bottle.” The NFB representative yelled “wow” and we took a deep breath. After giving us a host of feedback and testing our prototype with more sight impaired people, she told us that she was willing to work with us to not only test ThirdEye with more patients but also to distribute it when we were ready.
And so the hustle began.
Building a Product
At this point, we had a prototype that the market want. After researching and having multiple conversations with some of our school’s business professors, we decided upon a simple subscription based business model. Users would pay a monthly fee of around $15 for as many recognitions as they want. They could either choose to pay the price of Glass upfront or cover the cost over two years.
The next step was to ensure that the product actually worked 100% of the time. After all, the consequences of a mis-recognition could be dire. For example, what if a sight impaired person took a few prescription pills thinking that they were Advil? We knew we had work to do.
Next week on Sunday, read about how we converted our prototype into a product.