- 08 Nov 2023
Born into a family of modest means, I remember the early struggles we faced as we lived in a rented apartment. Schooling was in a Gujarati medium, and, to be honest, I was an average student. It was a time when financial stability seemed like a distant dream. But life has a way of surprising you. As my father's business started to thrive, we moved into a self-owned house, and I began to see new possibilities on the horizon. This marked a turning point, setting the stage for my future.
I spent most of my formative years at a boarding school in Ooty. Transitioning from a Gujarati-medium school to an English-medium one in class three to four was a challenging experience, but I made the most of my school life. I pursued my higher education in the UK, specializing in Robotics, which taught me independence, both personally and academically, learning, and self-discovery that would later shape my path.
Despite the family business offering financial stability, I found myself drawn towards innovation and experimentation. In 2017, I joined a startup in Delhi that focused on building prosthetic hands. This experience was a confidence booster as I delved into prosthetic design and software development. I spent eight months as an intern, but it was just the beginning. In 2018, I decided to embark on my entrepreneurial journey, founding Sunbots Innovations LLP, where our goal was to solve problems with computer vision and AI.
Each day at Sunbots was a new idea, a new experiment, as we were finding our signature product. During COVID, we adapted by creating a UV-C disinfecting tower, which gained modest success and marked our first actual revenue. As the pandemic waned, we took a different direction, exploring solutions in monitoring systems for home and port security.
The aim was to use AI-supported robots with cameras that could detect threats and alert facilities for an appropriate response. But we couldn’t scale these ideas the way we wanted to. Now that I think about it, I understand that every mistake and setback was just a part of the journey toward the winning idea.
One night, a seemingly ordinary incident sparked a game-changing idea. My wife, in an accident, hit the bathroom door and lost consciousness briefly. She screamed, “Suket, I can’t see!” And I very casually replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll make smart glasses for you.” Even though she was fine after a splash or two on her face, she realized something. At that moment, she wondered, “Why not make smart glasses for the blind who probably deal with this every day?
She shared the idea with me but, from a business perspective, I was skeptical about it. Given the challenges of raising capital, manufacturing costs, and customer buying capacity, the business was unsustainable. Yet, my wife's persistence and desire made me speak with 50 blind individuals from various backgrounds at an NGO the very next day. It became apparent that a significant gap existed in the market for affordable technology that could enhance the lives of the blind. So, we got to work.
One of the most significant challenges we faced was ensuring our product's affordability, scalability, and quality. The idea was to set up a camera that captures a picture of the object or a book in front of the user and detects the object or converts the text into audio for the person. According to what we had researched, students and working professionals who dealt with various documents needed systems to convert their printed or digital files into audio whenever they needed it without any external help. On the other hand, some needed better mobility while walking on the road.
Ultimately, we found a solution that incorporated all the necessary components into lightweight wired glasses. This approach not only reduced the device's weight but also lowered the overall cost. It's now more affordable, making it easier for individuals and organizations to support our mission. We launched our smart glasses, SMARTON, in June 2023, and today, our smart glasses are among the most affordable in the world, costing just INR 12,000 in India. SMARTON provides results comparable to global products that cost INR 3 to 4 lakhs, almost forty times the price it comes in.
Our mission extends beyond just creating a product; it's about educating the blind about the possibilities and making them more independent and self-sufficient. Shopping, once a challenging task, becomes more straightforward with the ability to read shop signs and labels using glasses, opening the scope for employment in stores. The glasses offer situational awareness, helping the blind navigate the bustling streets and detect real-time changes in their surroundings. With the glasses connected to an Android smartphone, they can also make online payments and book rides independently.
Since our product's launch in June, we have sold over 500 devices, receiving feedback from a diverse group of users. Each user has unique needs, and we're committed to addressing them. We're continually expanding the list of current 300 recognized objects based on user feedback, including identifying potholes, animal dung, and road slopes. Currently, the device has three modes— object identification, reading, and currency identification. We are now developing wireless glasses and more inclusive voice-operated bots to access different data without going through the entire file but by simply asking questions.
We've already seen the transformation our technology has brought to users' lives. A young boy from Ahmedabad, previously dependent on others for everyday tasks, now shops, reads, and moves around independently. Our technology has provided a newfound sense of safety and confidence, allowing them to navigate the world with more assurance.
To make SMARTON accessible to a wider and more vulnerable audience, we collaborate with NGOs and raise funds through CSR initiatives and individual donations. We wholeheartedly welcome and encourage people to reach out to us through available contacts to join our cause.
The message is clear: technology is a powerful tool for enhancing the lives of the visually impaired. By coming together, we can help them achieve greater independence and financial security. With the highest number of blind individuals in our country, the potential for positive change is immense, and we're determined to make it happen. Together, we can help them see beyond the darkness.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath
With words as her medium and a diary full of scribbled ideas, she is usually found looking for ways to use her writing to impact for Good. If she’s out of sight, she’s probably either reading, petting cats, jamming to retro Bollywood, or of course, writing!