Twenty-nine-year-old Ajit Narayanan didn't just have a vision for his company; he had a goal to help children with disabilities through his business.
Mr. Narayanan likes to think of himself as an engineer first and it is in this capacity that he's steering his company, Invention Labs, on a path that few Indian companies have dared to tread.
Based in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, this start-up began life as a product company, even though Mr. Narayanan knew that services companies have a better survival rate in the technology space. Still, being an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology gave him an edge. "I always wanted to build gadgets for the Indian market that can then be used by the world," he says.
Right after graduating, Mr. Narayanan did chase a dollar salary in the U.S. for a short while (from 2003 to 2007), but returned home when he felt he'd saved enough to support his own venture.
Back home, he turned to his alma mater and found that, in their spare time, some of his professors were working with Vidya Sagar, an institution for people with special needs. A student project had already envisaged a product that would help children with cerebral palsy, autism and certain forms of developmental delay to communicate. "In a sense, our product had already begun its life before I came on the scene," Mr. Narayanan says.
Mr. Narayanan and two classmates set up Invention Labs, housed in the garage of Mr. Narayanan's parents' home. After several attempts and some years, a light-weight device was finally ready for use by children in 2010. Called Avaz (which means voice, or speech, in several Indian languages), this speech generation device uses pictures and words and is intended for children who are intelligent but cannot communicate by speech.
Speech generation machines do exist already in the developed world, but they cost anywhere between $4,000 and $10,000 apiece, prohibitively expensive for most Indian families. At about $700, Avaz is just a fraction of that but it is still a sum that a middle-class family would have to struggle to spend. "We absolutely need to bring down the price, but for that we need volume sales," Mr. Narayanan says.
The company has sold about 100 devices across India so far. Most of them, however, are shared by up to 10 children at the institute they attend, so its impact is magnified. Mr. Narayanan believes they could sell at least 10,000 Avaz boxes a year in India alone if there were more awareness of the product and a reduced price tag. "We are making no money on the product, but intend to invest even more on features and updates, as the latent demand and need exist," he says.
Survival through services
Invention Labs stays afloat by designing products for other companies (not entirely escaping the services model that Indian tech firms need to follow in order to survive). Among the gadgets designed by the team for other companies are: a diabetes monitoring device; a non-contact thermometer that can be used in public spaces, such as airports, to measure if someone has a fever; infant warmers for a hospital; and even a micro satellite for a space research organization. Invention Labs gets a design fee, while the customer retains the intellectual property.
Meanwhile, the two co-founders left to take up other jobs but Mr. Narayanan decided to pursue his dream. "My reward is to see the joy on a parent's face when she describes how, for the first time, her child expressed a need or want through Avaz," he says. One mother, he recalls, would regularly prepare roti (wheat pancake) for her child until – through Avaz – he told her that he preferred dosa (rice pancake). "She felt terribly guilty at first that she hadn't understood her child but then felt grateful that he could now communicate. Most parents are just so happy that their children are able to reach out through words and pictures," he says.
Although Invention Labs has a small loan and grant from two organizations, there's no venture funding or angel investor in the wings yet. Assistive technology has few takers in the venture capital community because the returns are uncertain and the business model unproven, according to Mr. Narayanan. "Only a visionary will understand how life-changing such devices can be," he says.
Mr. Narayanan wants to extend Invention Lab's portfolio to include devices for the hearing impaired and the visually impaired. "We need to include those with disabilities into the mainstream. Imagine if people with weak eyesight had no help in the form of vision-correcting glasses. Some of my classmates were practically blind when they took off their spectacles. Yet are we considered disabled? No, because spectacles correct our vision. I want Avaz to be the spectacles of the speech-impaired," Mr. Narayanan declares.
Whether the product itself will survive its current avatar remains to be seen, as smart devices such as tablet computers may be able to do the job just as well. Mr. Narayanan feels the threat can be turned into an opportunity, though, because communication modules can now be built that buyers can download from the Internet – and this opens up the international market for Invention Labs. Avaz already has multi-language capabilities; adding a few foreign languages should be child's play.
Special to The Globe and Mail
THE INCUBATOR: IIT Madras Research Park
Around the world, start-ups need all the help they can get. In developing countries, that need becomes magnified because lack of funding to develop and market products is just the beginning of the marathon. Along the way come difficulties in hiring the right people, paying the rent and, finally, getting customers to pay.
Invention Labs got around some of these hurdles by virtue of the fact that it's being incubated by the IIT Madras' Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), a unit of the IIT Madras Research Park. The company pays a nominal rent for use of office space, is located right next to IIT-Madras (Indian Institute of Technology Madras), has access to professors and mentors from the institute and has received grants to support its product development activities.
Research Park CEO Sandhya Shekhar says it is modelled along the lines of successful research parks at Stanford and MIT. "It has a larger agenda that focuses not just on incubation efforts but also on propelling successful innovation in established R&D focused companies," she says.
Start-ups are given subsidized space for a period of 18 months, followed by a review that may warrant another 18 months of stay. "Our metrics of success is not how much money our real estate is making but how much IP is being created," Dr. Shekhar says.
Editor's note: Narayanan is the correct spelling of the last name of the CEO of Invention Labs. This is a corrected version of the story.