Most innovations need dedication, patience, and relentless effort. And that holds true for four engineering graduates from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani—Goa who have developed an assistive-learning device, Annie, for the visually impaired. What started as a college project for Sanskriti Dawle (23), Saif Shaikh (22), Aman Srivastava (23) and Dilip Ramesh (23) has evolved into a company, Thinkerbell Labs.

The simple solution: Annie is a Braille literacy device that runs on the Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized computer, and consists of hardware components such as a refreshable Braille display, a digital Braille slate, and a Braille keyboard. This combination helps students teach themselves how to read, write and type in Braille.

Defining a wicked problem:Access to education for visually impaired persons.

When the founders tested their prototype at schools in Hyderabad, Goa, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, they realized there was a pattern to old teaching methods that used devices like Braille typewriters and Braille books. “A lot of change has happened in education during the last two-three decades which is completely missing for the visually-impaired community. (There are a) lot of reasons for it, but one is the lack of tutors," says Ramesh, co-founder and chief technical officer at Thinkerbell Labs. “We aim to reduce this gap," adds Srivastava, co-founder and chief operating officer.

Supporting pillars: Thinkerbell Labs has been using the UK as a “test bed". Srivastava says the start-up is primarily patron-driven, and depends on corporate social responsibility funds, B2G (business to government) and individual patrons for funding. It has raised Rs1.3 crore in angel investment from the Indian Angel Network and Anand Mahindra, chairman, Mahindra & Mahindra Group. It is currently working on a pilot project funded by the Jharkhand government, and has received a grant from the Karnataka government to install devices in some schools. “We are running pilots at different places to understand better how to integrate our innovation in the existing system," says Srivastava.

Past life: The co-founders are engineering graduates.

Cracking the code: “Our reason to start is very geeky; as in we were all engineering students, learning new tech, and exploring the Raspberry Pi," says Srivastava. The group was trying to build a seven-segment display (an electronic display device to display decimal numerals) when Dawle came up with the idea of converting it into a haptic device. “We researched quite a bit, and figured that we can create a Braille tethering device from it," he says.

After developing a basic prototype with alphabets, the team tested it at a school in Hyderabad. “The children were so excited because they had never been exposed to any kind of interactivity, or gamification," says Srivastava.

Strong suit: The estimated cost of each prototype is about Rs40,000. The team says it will come down when they manufacture and scale up. They believe Annie is one of the first literacy devices for the visually impaired which allows a person to self-learn, reducing dependence on teachers and parents. Teachers are often required to give one-to-one attention to each blind student. “We realized that if one child needs one person, in a class of about eight children, during a 40-minute-long session, each child would get only 5 minutes of attention," says Srivastava. The firm uses hardware and software technologies that will enable a teacher to effectively teach more than one student simultaneously.

Reality check: Like any upcoming start-up, Thinkerbell Labs faces fund-raising challenges—Srivastava believes the country’s start-up ecosystem doesn’t have adequate support systems. He says the firm also faces prototyping challenges since no manufacturer is willing to work with limited quantity. “Fortunately, we have great partners who have helped us with proper guidance and advisory to navigate us through all of those things," he says.

Exit plan: “Honestly don’t have a plan B because I believe in investing 100%. I thoroughly believe in what we are doing," says Ramesh. Srivastava agrees, saying the team never considered a back-up option since that makes one work with full conviction towards Plan A. In the next five years, the company hopes to create new markets, and change the way people learn and live. “Literacy and inclusion have far-reaching effects and this is only the beginning," he adds.

Third eye: Shalabh Mittal, chief executive, School for Social Entrepreneurs, India, feels Thinkerbell Labs’ idea is “interesting", given that the visually impaired are marginalized, and the innovation enables self-learning. He adds a note of caution: “The product itself has to be commercial. From lab to market, there is a huge difference. It could be a prototype or product in labs, but when it goes to the market, how it really works is very crucial."

Social impact warriors is a series that traces the path of award-winning social start-ups set up in the last couple of years and the journey of the founders towards solving a wicked problem.

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