The Howe Innovation Center is part of Perkins School for the Blind. The center is named for Samuel Gridley Howe, the founding director of Perkins. He was a visionary for his time in the 1830s. Howe believed that people with disabilities should be mainstreamed into society. He was a social entrepreneur.
He found the first students and teachers for the school. He took the school from zero to one. He also was an innovator in teaching methodologies and technology. Howe taught a woman named Laura Bridgeman, who is believed to be the first deafblind woman to receive a formal education.
In his spare time, he developed the Boston line type, a novel tactile language and a precursor to Braille. Hence, it’s fitting to name the Innovation Center after Howe. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, was a force. She was an Abolitionist and ran an anti-slavery newspaper. She’s the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
What Is Howe Innovation Center?
What Perkins wants to do with this initiative is to connect the community of people with disabilities with innovators around the world. This includes all disabilities, not just visual impairment. Out of all the students at Perkins, 50% have a second disability in addition to a vision disability. The school has worked around the world for 200 years with people with multiple disabilities. They wouldn’t be serving the community if they focused solely on visual impairments. Hence, this is an initiative for all disability communities.
Howe has four areas of focus: research, lived experiences, investors, and companies.
There are market maps and market research for walkers, wheelchairs, canes, and mobility aids. But there wasn’t any market map around start-ups that were leveraging cutting-edge technologies to make the world accessible. So, Sandy Lacey decided to build one. She started with an ugly database in a spreadsheet. Now it has over 750 companies in it.
There are sticky and persistent problems in daily living, education, and employment that the disability community deeply understands those problem points. But innovators may not be aware of them. Perkins helps amplify and crowdsource those problem statements to make them easily accessible to the innovative community out there. The center might be able to channel well-intentioned entrepreneurial activity to the top problem statements that the community wants to see people working on.
They also want to help entrepreneurs with the common problems that entrepreneurs face. These include finding capital, finding customers for primary market research and user testing, and getting the product deployed out into the real world for feedback on how it works when it’s out in the wild. The center will do that by building a community beyond the community of people with disabilities and entrepreneurs.
The center wants to bring angel investors, grant writers, and venture capitalists to the table. They also want to bring academic institutions to the table including students of engineering, design, and business. It’s an opportunity to make them aware of what disability technology is and help them get plugged into opportunities. Universities have cutting-edge technologies that could be applied to accelerate accessibility and the center wants to help plug them in
The last pieces are the big tech companies and large corporations that care about accessibility and inclusion. The center wants to partner with them.
There’s a difference between disability tech and assistive technology. Assistive tech is a major component of disability tech, but it’s not all of it. For example, an inclusive employment start-up is going to increase accessibility for people with disabilities. While it is accessible, it’s not an assistive technology, which involves somebody increasing their function. It’s a broader market.
Building the Database
After collecting the names of 750 companies, Sandy started cataloging them based on the community of people with disabilities the company is trying to serve. Then, they also sorted by categories of disability innovation themes, such as travel, communication, inclusive employment, and so on.
The database is robust enough that someone can query it such as pulling up the companies innovating for the low vision in space of navigation using computer vision and haptics. Then the database will list the companies that meet the criteria. They’re adding investors to include who they are, how much money they’ve invested in this space, their geography, and the status of the product.
They’ve created a perceptual market map to identify trends. For example, at least 140 companies are based in the U.S. About 40% of the global market is based in the U.S. and is innovating for the low vision. The top five countries are the U.S., the United Kingdom, Israel, India, and Australia. Keep in mind, these are companies innovating for the blind and visually impaired.
Currently, most of the activity for the visually impaired is in the navigation space. There’s more to navigation than going from Point A to Point B. It’s a critical issue for the visually impaired as 60% don’t have jobs. And six out of 10 students with visual impairments who start college don’t get a degree. If they don’t feel safe, confident, or comfortable getting from one place to another, it hinders education and employment.
Over 35 companies are trying to tackle the problem of navigation through wearables. Among wearables, glasses are the most common category. At least 23 start-ups operate within this space. Collectively, these companies have raised $135 million with 13 shipping a product.
However, glasses aren’t the only type of wearable. There are also harnesses, rings, and wrist wearables. Companies here have raised around $14.3 million. And there are at least 15 companies taking this approach with wrist wearables being the most common. This barely scratches the surface of what the database contains.
Two representatives from companies from the disability tech ecosystem share their stories.
Keith Kirkland, co-founder and chief haptics officer of Wear.Works and disability tech entrepreneur shares his story. Haptics means touch. The company builds products and experiences that use the skin as a communications channel to deliver information in an intuitive way that’s less obtrusive.
The company built a band that helps people find their way using haptics. If the band is silent, it means you’re going in the right direction. If you’re slightly off-center, then it produces a tiny vibration. If you’re going in the wrong way, it will vibrate at its strongest setting. A lot of travelers get lost even with a visual and audible map. A person could be walking one way and the map doesn’t clearly show whether it’s the right way. Haptics can confirm this.
In 2016, the company went to SXSW and met someone who said for them to take it to Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired on the spot. The representatives went right over there and spent time with the staff and students. After that, the founders agreed to focus on the blind and the visually impaired.
When the company started, the team went to the National Federation of the Blind. They told them something brilliant.
“Don’t build a blind device. Build a device everybody can use but optimize for the blind experience. If you build it for us, we won’t want it. If you build it and it works great for us and everyone else, we’ll find you.”
The company has an app and a wearable. Anyone can get the HapticNav app without the wearable as it will work with the phone. With the high rate of unemployment and economic disparities, they didn’t want to make people buy another device. Hence, they turned the phone into a haptic tool for navigation.
The company patented the Haptic Corridor, a continuous haptic feedback feature. Now they license the technology to other companies.
How did the company build the product for people who are blind and visually impaired? “We put out crap, they told us it was crap, and we fixed it. That’s it! It’s a very simple process. Just listen. Right?” Keith said. As a result, people were testing all over the world. The company’s technology made it possible for someone to become the first blind person to run a marathon without sighted assistance.
5Lion Ventures Story
Ron Russo is the Chief Operating Officer and Partner at 5Lion Ventures, an early-stage investment firm. The company has invested in ARxVision and Ron is on the board.
ARxVision translates visual and spatial information of surroundings into audio cues by using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and user-centered design. Originally called Horus Sight, its founders’ vision was “to have real dialogue in a community and understand what the true needs of that community were.”
This is where a lot of technologists fail. They don’t have a good understanding of the needs. It results in technology being clinical without the magnetism or fun found in consumer products. They don’t engage with the community. Their product does not fit the community that they’re targeting.
Charles Leclercq, CEO of ARxVision, approached it differently by making it fun and exciting. He engages with the community, emphasizes the user experience, and has a feedback loop in place. The company focuses on progress over perfection. The feedback from the users has been valuable. This allows the company to build an open and transparent dialogue with the community. They’re working to solve real problems while having fun.
- Join the Howe Innovation Center community.
- Innovations for the blind and visually impaired heat map [PDF]
Select any of the bullets to jump to the topic on the video.
- What is Howe Innovation Center?
- Building the database
- Learn about Wear.Works
- What ARxVision does differently
- Q&A with Sandy, Keith, and Ron
Watch the Presentation
Sandy K. Lacey is an executive leader who’s all about building things that matter. As the Director of Innovation at the Perkins School for the Blind, Sandy is catalyzing and convening key players to drive innovation in accessible products and services for the blind, visually impaired, and multi-disability communities. She is also a lecturer at MIT Sloan’s School of Management, where she teaches Building an Entrepreneurial Venture.
As an executive dedicated to making a difference, Sandy has extensive innovation experience in corporate, government, and academic settings, and excels in startup environments. Sandy is a 3x early startup employee, working at Emerging Energy Research (acquired: IHS), CB Insights, and Drafted (acquired: Instawork).
She loves studying how technology and design can be leveraged to improve the human experience. Sandy has a master’s from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a B.A. cum laude from Georgetown University.