EIT Digital Master School alumnus builds social startup in the magical world of apps for visually impaired people
Imagine you are wandering around a foreign city trying to make sense of the signposts in a language you do not speak. You feel lost in translation. This is how blind or visually impaired people must feel like every day, thought Jan Jaap de Groot. He decided to use his EIT Digital Master School entrepreneurial education to develop a digital alternative to vision for this audience and use that expertise in his other company.
De Groot’s inspiration struck when he was walking in the halls of the Université Paris-Saclay, when he started his first year of the two year EIT Digital Master School programme Human Computer Interaction and Design. Being a Dutch guy, he could read the signage plates but did not understand all the words. That is when he thought: ‘This is what blind people must feel like: not being able to read and not knowing where you are! Can I develop something to help visually impaired people? The idea stayed with him during his masters. And it evolved.
In his second year of the dual degree Master’s, at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, he was writing a thesis on the subject. First, he analysed the market. In the Netherlands more than 320.000 people have a visual impairment, 85 per cent of these are fifty years or older and there is an increase in the number of I visually impaired people, according to viso.org. Visually impaired and blind people encounter the most problems inside their house, De Groot found out. For example, being unable to distinguish a can of tomato paste from a similarly-shaped can of beans. If they could scan a barcode that tells them what they would otherwise see, their lives would be a lot easier. At that time there were no apps on the market for visually impaired people that resembled this idea.
He decided to do his internship at in Enschede-headquartered the company Appnormal.com. He had done some summertime work there before and the owners had made already another app for people with a visual impairment. He continued his research on the possibilities of making an app for visually impaired people, which later became the basis for his social startup Speechlabel, that he cofounded with the founders of Appnormal in December 2018, the year of his EIT Digital Master School graduation. “We want to make the world accessible for all people.”
Speechlabel is both the name of the company and the app that visually impaired and blind people can use to scan objects via special stickers to learn what they are. The user, or a friend or relative needs to first create labels in either an iOS or Android smartphone app by scanning the barcode or NFC labels on objects. The app recognizes the thirteen most common types of barcodes and all common types of NFC tags.
When the product is scanned, the object name can be recorded and typed as a label in the app. The smartphone now can work as a scanner for barcoded products.
For objects without barcodes, one can make order dedicated sticker labels to put on these items. Labels can then be made for example for bagged leftovers to be frozen. Speechalabel sells also washing and dryer machine resistant NFC buttons that can be used on clothing, so people can sort their clothes by themselves. When then the smartphone is pointed at a labelled product, the app will speak out the recorded information.
“The app is fully accessible and voice-based. Every step of the order process is explained by the built-in screen reader of the smartphone.”
Ideally, the app would be connected to the European Bar Code database, called GS1 database, which would increase the ease of use in the app. “But it is very difficult to get access to this database,” says De Groot. “Currently, we are looking for collaborations with the biggest supermarkets.”
Alongside fast moving consumer goods, De Groot also sees people using Speechlabel for scanning their medicines. “People who cannot read their prescriptions well can scan the barcode to confirm they have the right medication.”
The stickers could also be used for public spaces. “Like a sticker next to an information board, so the app can read out loud what it says on there. Numbers on doors, now often are in braille, but only ten per cent of the visually impaired people know braille. This could be a good alternative.”
A next step in the development roadmap is the cloud storage. “At the moment, all labels are stored locally on the phone of the user. When we have an online database in the cloud, relatieves will also be able to support remotely on their own smartphones. We will need to have accounts that can be synchronised with the cloud. There are privacy and security matters to solve. We need to build good backups to ensure that the labels will not be lost.”
Scaling up Q1
One of the EIT Digital Master School entrepreneurial lessons he took to heart was to see Europe as the home market and not just his own country. The basic platform therefore is already built for a multilingual structure. In Q1 of 2020 De Groot will add an English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese language version. “We found out that if we want to make a profit, we need to go international. Potential customers are small in one country, but worldwide it is a huge market. The power of the app is that it can be scaled to a worldwide audience.” Worldwide there are 37 million blind people and 124 million visually impaired people, estimates Vision2020.nl, that is part of the World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness (IAPB).
As soon as the cloud function is available, Speechlabel wants to hit the international market.
International expansion throws up new logistical questions. “Our app combines digital and physical products. The physical part depends on delivery. The shipment itself is quite a challenge. How do we verify that a shipment reaches its destination? What will happen if someone in the USA says the order has not arrived? We could really use some help in our international expansion. Every country has different delivery tariffs, different consumer rights and different VAT rules. On top of this, the post tariffs have recently increased. We already ship our stickers internationally sometimes, so we suffer from this. Outside the Netherlands we can’t include the shipping prices anymore in our pricing. This will impact the internationalisation.”
Another lesson De Groot applied was market validation. “You have to validate the market. As a software developer it is very easy to build something. But before starting to build, you have to verify the product need among people outside of your own familiar circle. I tested Speech label with more than a hundred people. That was not easy to do. I sent the app to them, gave instructions and measured the statistics and conducted interviews. I then produced a prototype and received positive feedback from them.”
The app launched in 2019 at Ziezo, the largest fair in Europe for visually impaired people, where the founders had a booth. This year they share a booth with their collaboration partner LowVisionShop. Speechlabel’s business model depends on the sales of stickers. The social startup is not yet profitable. It might get to break even this year, hopes De Groot. “Maybe in 2021 there will be some profit to share.”
De Groot does not expect this will be the goose that lays the golden egg. “Speechlabel is just a small part of my enterprise. A kind of voluntary work to do something good. The money should come from his other companies Voertuigexpert B.V., which provides detailed information on Dutch vehicles based on licence plates, and his Abra B.V.
The expertise he builds with Speechlabel is giving purpose to his consultancy company Abra BV, which he founded already in 2014 as a sole proprietor and later transformed into a closed corporation. He is specialised in making accessible apps for all users. “In 2021, companies need to comply to new legislation to make apps and websites accessible for impaired people. The expertise I built with Speechlabel, I now can use to consult all government organisations and companies to comply. Because I have the knowledge to do so. That means that Abra can be big in making and consultancy on building apps for visually impaired people.
Abra is short for abracadabra, says De Groot. “The world of apps is magical, abra, the first letters of abracadabra helps all people to enter it.”
Magic in this case is about giving the blind or visually impaired people digital powers to scan the world around them.