We are thrilled to announce that Inclusive Innovation Network (+N) has officially launched!
On the 1st of September, 2021 we were joined by Jenny Lay-Flurrie and over 250 guests to celebrate the launch of +N, which is the world’s first global community of disability tech startups, innovators, ecosystem enablers and investors who shape future technologies that change the world of disability inclusion.
+N is made possible by Cerebral Palsy Alliance and we are honoured to be part of the +N founding team alongside Global Centre of Possibility, Disability Impact Fund, AssisTech Foundation (ATF), Access to Success Organization, Innovate Now.
You can now rewatch and share this launch event on our YouTube now, and we would like to note this video has been edited to reflect the brilliant feedback we received from our guests on how to make the audio more accessible and a transcript of this event is also available to download.
[00:29 – 03:49] Minnie Baragwanath, Chief Possibility Officer, Global Centre of Possibility
Welcome to the global launch of the Inclusive Innovation Network or +N I’m Minnie Baragwanath and it’s my absolute privilege to be a founding member of this incredible new network driving and catalyzing social change around the world. +N aims to grow a global community and marketplace of entrepreneurs and innovators who have the skills and the passion to create a future that is truly accessible to everyone. We know that globally disabled people, or people with access needs, are the most excluded of any group in our society today +N is seeking to mobilize the incredible talent in this community globally, to reimagine, invent, design and lead new technology products and services to transform this disabling society into a future of possibility for all. Did you know that many of the products and technologies that we just take for granted in our day-to-day lives were created or designed for, by, or with people living with disability, or access needs. Whether it’s the smartphone, the keyboard, or optical character recognition – these are all innovations that occurred within the access community. Can you imagine what types of world-changing innovations await all of us if we now start to invest intentionally into this community; actively unlocking the skills, the talent and the lives of the billions of people worldwide living with disability or access needs. +N is a network of leading access accelerators growing the next generation of access entrepreneurs, innovators and designers. We are a network of forward-thinking investors, making strategic investments into this possibility laden sector. As the Chief Possibility Officer here at the Global Centre of Possibility in New Zealand Aotearoa and as a blind entrepreneur myself, I know first hand the incredible power of this work. We are currently hot-housing a group of entrepreneurs and their incredible ideas that seek to transform our society and economy. Imagine hundreds of these accelerators all around the world and hundreds and thousands of startups tapping into and growing the 13 trillion dollar market opportunity and that is what +N can be if you choose to join us to create a truly accessible future with the 2 billion people worldwide with access needs. So join us now! We at +N, are seeking progressive investors, designers, technologists, entrepreneurs and social change agents who are all deeply committed to creating a different and more equitable future for us all. It is now my great pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague the Chief Accessibility Officer for Microsoft global Jenny Lay-Flurrie.
[03:54 – 14:52] Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer, Microsoft
Hi there folks and thank you to Minnie. I’m excited to be with you today. My name is Jenny Lay-Flurrie. I am the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft and thrilled to be with you for the official launch of the Inclusive Innovation Network. I’m excited about the potential of what this network can achieve in what is an incredibly important time I think in the history of inclusion. As we look at the diversity of just being human my lens, my focus, is on the area of disability and how accessibility can empower people with disabilities, which means building an ecosystem that is supportive of disability in all its forms. Disability is a big gig. It’s if you look at the statistics, it’s over a billion people and those statistics are 10 years old and that was before a pandemic. Pandemic has undoubtedly added to the demographic of disability. In fact just in the last few weeks long COVID has been recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means that we are in a growing demographic. We were before the pandemic because disability is so closely correlated with age. But it’s going to grow even more in the next five years. If I look at the indicators from the last two. That said, there’s a lot that we can and should be doing right now to make sure that we are more inclusive of talent with disabilities, and I look at where we are today and the demographics today and it’s clear that we have a lot of opportunity ahead. The unemployment and the labor participation rate for people with disabilities is woefully low. In fact, around double that for people with disabilities versus not. I look at education rates, and graduation rates for people with disabilities, and they are significantly lower than their non-disabled peers. When you look at the core and the reasons why, well, it’s not one factor – it is a multitude of layers of inaccessibility and societal stereotypes and stigmas that have rendered people with disabilities, well, many, many brick walls and hurdles. I myself am one. I have deafness, and in fact got deafness through measles as a very small child. I am severely profoundly deaf. I do rely on sign language interpreters and captioning. But my deafness is deceptive because my speech is pretty dang good. I’m from a place in the middle of England and I still withhold my British accent, which is the gift of my deafness, you could say, having been here in the States for 15 years. But like the rest of humanity I don’t just have one disability anymore. As I age – gloriously and elegantly age – I acquire new ones. I have a physical disability in my leg and I have a mental health condition. All of those are covered. All of those are disabilities. But there’s plenty more vision, mobility, speech, neurodiversity, mental health and more. In fact, the majority of disability you cannot see is non-apparent or invisible to the eye. Over 70 percent of disability you would not know by seeing someone. And these blockers, these issues, can be anything very simple. A building may not be accessible to get into for an interview. The interview process may be prohibited for individuals. You may ask someone who’s blind to use equipment never used before, or to write something on a whiteboard. In fact, that scenario could be prohibitive for someone who’s deaf, or has a mobility disability as well. We’re closing doors to talent all the way through. And so it’s incumbent on us all to really think about what we can do in a new and innovative way to drive a new bar of inclusion for people with disabilities. Microsoft, well we laid down a gauntlet earlier this year. We have set a new charter; a new goal, to tackle the disability divide that exists not just here in the States, but around the world, and we want to make an incremental impact on that divide in the next five years. We believe that technology has a significant part to play in solving that divide and not by making stuff compliant, but for driving for a bar higher than compliance driving for technology that is usable, productive, effective, delightful – that opens doors to people. We also think that it’s really important to unblock the talent pipeline by focusing on partnerships with universities and with governments, public and private, to help make sure that the processes for people with disabilities are inclusive. One great example of that is we’re working with the department of work and pensions in the UK to train 26,000 of their Job coaches that work in job centres around the United Kingdom and we’re training them on digital accessibility. So when a person with a disability walks in the door, they know where to go and how to educate them, because they’re already educated themselves. And the last pillar is to really focus on our own workforce. We’re very proud to have a very strong community of people with disabilities at Microsoft, in fact, that’s how I came to be doing what I’m doing today is that I joined the company coming up 16, 17 years ago now and joined in London to work on Hotmail and very quickly found that I needed to be more upfront about my deafness and find others like me so I could get some best practices under my belt. Microsofties like to talk, quite a lot, and it was a little bit different than I thought when I joined the deaf community. I then joined every other that I could. I found there were six at the time, and created the disability employee resource group, which is now 22 different slices of disability around the world. Employees talking about how to work effectively, how to bring their magic and their talents and their expertise into the workplace to help us create better products and services. We did publicly share our representation in the US last year at 6.1 percent, but bluntly, we’ve got a long way to go and we’re really excited to continue to dig into hiring talent, specifically talent with disabilities, but bringing talent in that really understands the world of disability and accessibility and can help us. Whether they’re technical or non-technical, we have a lot of jobs outside of engineering. Ultimately though, one of the biggest things that I get excited about is the opportunity to create technology, processes, products, work environments, that are accessible by design. Where technology is affordable, easy to find, easy to access and it again is going after some of the newest areas of technology, to render new scenarios, open to talent. I’ll give you a couple of quick examples, hopefully, to light a fire. In gaming, Xbox worked a couple of years ago with an amazing group of individuals to figure out how they could make gaming more accessible; particularly for people with mobility, and for those veterans coming back wanting some respite. That resulted in the Xbox Adaptive Controller – a piece of technology that was affordable, designed with, and for, people with disabilities and looks cool. Is awesome, easy to find in the store on the shelf. We also have been working on the core of Windows and Office, making sure that simple technologies like well, colour blindness filters you can see, that there is captioning in Microsoft Teams, that is if you want to check a document to see how accessible, there is an accessibility checker – yes, very similar to spell check – right there to make sure that your document is accessible and by the way it’s using artificial intelligence to tell you what’s missing and make suggestions so make it easier for you to make it more inclusive and accessible. We’re also going to be prompting people and nudging people to say, “Hey, you’re about to send a large email but it’s not accessible. We suggest you make some changes.” And that prompt will be happening for all people using outlook. And lastly, teams that just create completely new visionary pieces of technology. The immersive reader is a great example of this, where a gang got together in a hackathon and created technology for dyslexia specifically to power kids. 5 percent of the population has dyslexia, but most go undiagnosed. But simple features can simply empower a kid sitting next to a kid without dyslexia using the same laptop, the same Microsoft Office, the same environment, but just hitting a single button and making it render 10 percent easier to read. These are simple things built with, and through, and for people with disabilities that will hopefully help to bridge the disability divide. But I’ll tell you now, it’s the tip of the iceberg. So I look forward to hearing and seeing what you do. I look forward to hearing how you’re partnering with the experts – people with disabilities – and helping us collectively, as a global society to change the lens on disability, because this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest talent pools, untapped Talent pools out there today and that’s got to change. Thank you so much and I look forward to you having just an incredible event, an incredible time, and be the change. Take care, bye.
[15:05 – 15:34] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
Good morning, afternoon and evening to everyone, and welcome to the first-ever +N investor fireside chat. My name is Yani, I’m a partner at Disability Impact Fund and I’m here today with three friends to have a, discussion on investing in accessibility and inclusion. So first of all here we have Lucas who is the Founder of Amparo a really exciting prosthetic startup. Hi Lucas.
[15:34 – 15:39] Lucas Paes de Melo, CEO & Co-Founder, Amparo
Hi Yani, thank you so much for the invitation I’m happy to be here.
[15:39 – 15:41] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
And then we have Gina, she’s the Founder of SmartJob, a groundbreaking new investment fund changing the future of work. Welcome, Gina!
[15:48 – 15:50] Regina “Gina” Kline, Founder and CEO, SmartJob, LLC
Thank you Yani so much.
[15:50 – 15:58] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
And last but not least Shashaank. Shashaank is with Gray Ghost Ventures, one of the early success stories in impact investing. So welcome Shashaank.
[15:58 – 16:05] Shashaank Awasthi, India Advisor, Gray Ghost Ventures
Thanks for having me Yani, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Lucas and Gina.
[16:05 – 16:37] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
And so Lucas, as a founder I know you’ve done your fair share of fundraising and I’m pretty sure during that process every now and then you’ve wondered, “What on earth are the guys on the other side of the table thinking?” and so today you have this really special opportunity to sit down with two actually friendly faces from the other side of the table and have an honest conversation on everything that is bothering you. And so, so what do you want to ask Gina and Shashaank?
[16:37 – 17:48] Lucas Paes de Melo, CEO & Co-Founder, Amparo
Yeah so it’s really an unusual situation, and it’s actually quite interesting to be able to chat with people whom I talk to and negotiate with on an ongoing basis. As a matter of fact, since I’m fundraising right now, this has been happening quite a lot and one of the questions that I always ask to impact investors is, “How do they see and measure impact?” And the reason why I ask this because it’s very important for me to be aligned with the people that are going to be sitting on the same table as me after the investment is done, so there are no frustrations, for none of the sides actually, on people being able to see the impact measurement and the impact alignment. Because you can do it by focus, by area, by depth, in so many different ways. And as a follow-up question, it would be very interesting to see how they as investors account for the impact when they’re making the investment decision-making process in comparison to the financial projections of the company.
[17:48 – 20:06] Regina “Gina” Kline, Founder and CEO, SmartJob, LLC
Yeah, so I think Lucas that this is maybe a rather untraditional view, but SmartJob was created and founded with the intention of using a disability lens investing with the singular idea of closing the disability wealth gap and materially changing the employment experience around the globe, for the nearly two-thirds of working-age people with disabilities who are experiencing an unemployment crisis. The impact is in everything that we do. We are essentially a global company looking for the best ideas around the world that will materially change the employment experience. That that predicates what comes into our deal flow into our sources sourcing into our pipeline I should say that also has to do with how we view the material long-term revenue potential of early-stage companies. We see the impact potential of any prospective company as being causally linked with its ability to earn revenue and produce a substantial financial return in the future. That these two things are not disparate ideas, they are, in fact, working together and here’s why we know that universally designed solutions – solutions that are designed with everybody in mind – have more revenue potential than other solutions. We know that products and services that have been tested ideated, brought to minimum viable products, by people with lived experiences of disabilities, have more universal application in the market. And so our investment lens is focused on four main areas: we focus on upskilling and reskilling work, underrepresented founders with disabilities, we’re focused on work-related tech, supporting accelerators in incubators around the world that are all very much focused on closing the disability wealth gap. We know that a good investment, the right investment thesis has to include who is creating the ideas based on what experiences and how will it materially drive changes in the market as it relates to the employment of people with disabilities.
[20:06 – 23:53] Shashaank Awasthi, India Advisor, Gray Ghost Ventures
So I want to start off by first placing on record the unfairness of Yani letting Gina in first – she said everything there is to be said in the first place. Right and then Lucas, before I try to answer the two questions, I must say thank you for having that background. It’s always nice to see the work that entrepreneurs are doing. So thank you for having the posters behind you. I’ll try and answer the two questions that you asked from our experience. We’ve been fortunate to be around for a little while. The first question was about ongoing alignment, right the frustrations of you know what should I say drift, or people thinking differently, I would encourage you to not worry too much about that because your own pathway is still not defined. Right your pathway is going to be…so an equity investor is going to be your partner for a minimum about, you know, at the barest minimum for five, seven years all right, probably longer. So I think you know you should worry about the ability to have alignment with whoever you’re speaking with. Right, because there’s going to be lots of changes that we’ve seen. You know things start one way, they go a different way when we hit the market and things like that right. And I think that’s true for all business and personal relationships that we engage in. So that’s sort of one part. The second part is about how do we measure. so for us, we put a dollar value to the impact that any businesses it creates. That’s one of the first conversations that we have with any entrepreneur. Right so we say, “Okay here is the aspiration of the impact that you want to make, here’s the dollar value” and we report that dollar value to the people whose money we are managing. I can tell you that in many conversations I observe a certain gesture which I think really tells me where the problem will impact an investor which is when people ask us this question, they almost always use this they say, “How do you think about impact and investment?” and this indicates that one of them has to operate at the expense of the other right. I can tell you for us and for most impact investors what’s very important to remember is that impact is the asset class that we are a part of. The second thing is I’ve had lots of conversations around what kind of returns do you want in equity. The fundamental difference, and Yani please allow me a little bit of latitude here, but the fundamental difference between fixed income and equity is that you cannot gun for a certain return on equity. It doesn’t work like that. Equity as a product doesn’t work like that. You have to negotiate a point of entry and you can negotiate a point of exit and that gives you the kind of return that you look at. So you cannot start off by saying that I’m going to look for sub-market returns, market meeting returns, or whatever right. So when people talk about being able to control returns for equity it’s very fascinating because I don’t know how to do that right and I can’t imagine how that gets done. And we all report in hindsight. Fixed income if you held to maturity will be able to tell you what returns you can get. So I would say that you have to recognize that investors. For you are basically asset managers like Gina and me, and we have responsibilities to people that we have raised money from, and that is to be able to invest in the category that delivers impact. And in that, we have to aspire to deliver good returns. What I can assure you, having learned from some very, very smart entrepreneurs is that you, or anybody else is not playing for sub-market returns. Markets behave in ways we don’t understand, right?
[23:53 – 26:18] Lucas Paes de Melo, CEO & Co-Founder, Amparo
No, thank you, thank you so much for bringing your piece of knowledge and your piece of information to this question in particular. And the point is also that we see and I find it very interesting to mention that’s the impact as a category because sometimes that’s not necessarily how it’s spoken right because I do believe that you can create both impact and gains and profits at the same place and that’s kind of like how for-profit organizations that create impact go for. But sometimes the profits can take a little bit longer, or sometimes you give bigger discounts for countries or for areas and geographical areas where they could not afford high paying prices and that will reflect on the revenues – that will reflect on the profits. Because if you’re only selling to developed countries, or if you sell to developing countries, you definitely have a different balance sheet right? And that is the question that comes to my mind because then impact becomes a keyword that is used as branding for some people that would like to create good in the world. But in the…as a matter of fact, in the end, the only thing that really matters are the financial returns of the game in the end. And I’m not saying the investors should not worry about it, of course, investors, they put money because they’re expecting to have a return. Nevertheless some of this return the returns are not necessarily accounted for in forms of impact but in forms of how the return comes in terms of money. And that’s kind of a question that comes to I think many early-stage companies of how, why are they even measuring impacts because sometimes investors just say oh this is a nice product and it creates impact. We create prosthetic legs for example. And for some people, that is enough. This means that oh you give a leg to someone – someone can walk – great! But actually, impact is measuring so many different ways, like how was the situation before the person had a leg? What is the situation with a different product? And hours, for how long can we help someone to actually walk again? And what is the depth of, what is the length and what is the timeline of the impact? And a lot of investors, they are not accounting that for on their financial decisions and that is something that could be frustrating for real impact startups or companies.
[26:18 – 26:53] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
That’s all the time we have today folks, it was a really interesting conversation and a lot was left unsaid, so I’m sure we will pick up from here on another occasion. And I hope everyone watching enjoyed and stay tuned for our next chat where we’ll pick up where we left here. Goodbye. Goodbye everyone.
[26:53 – 27:53] Bernard Chiira, Director of Innovate Now
Hello there, my name is Bernard Chiira, the Director of Innovate Now, Africa’s first assistive technology accelerator program out of Nairobi, Kenya. Now I believe that technology and entrepreneurship have important roles to play in ending the exclusion of those of us with disabilities. That is why I’m very excited to share with you about the Inclusive Innovation Network, +N. Over the last one year, or so, together with like-minded peers from Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada and Hong Kong, we have envisioned and founded +N, a global community of innovators, accelerators and investors, dedicated to growing the impact of technology and entrepreneurship on disability inclusion.
[27:53 – 28:32] Varun Chandak Founder of Access to Success Labs
Hi everyone, my name is Varun Chandak, and I’m the Founder of ATS Labs, Canada’s first accelerator for accessibility, mental health and ageing tech startups. Disability and accessibility are not limited by borders. The topics that need to be addressed at a global scale. And that’s why I’m absolutely stoked to have ATS labs become a founding member of the Inclusive Innovation Network, where I hope innovators, investors and accelerators will come together from across the world. There has never been a better time to be in the world of accessibility. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
[28:32 – 29:08] Jani Jalavisto, Partner, Disability Impact Fund
Hello from China! At Disability Impact Fund our vision is a world where everyone has equal possibility to participate, a world where no barriers, physical, or social, stop anyone from pursuing their passion. We believe technology and entrepreneurship have a crucial role to play and realizing this vision and since exclusion and inaccessibility are both global problems, we’re going to need global solutions. That’s why we’re so excited to be a part of +N. Our dream for +N is to see hundreds of local innovations scaled to become global solutions.
[29:08 – 30:40] Prateek Madhav, Founder and CEO, AssisTech Foundation
Hello, my name is Prateek Madhav. I’m the Founder and CEO of AssisTech Foundation – ATF. ATF is India’s first assistive technology-focused ecosystem that supports and promotes innovative disability technology startups. ATF’s goal has been to create more awareness about the world of disability and bring about a positive impact to the startups we nurture. It’s truly magical that we are in an age where many paths that are closed due to disability can be opened with innovative technology. It gives me immense pleasure that ATF is now a founding team of Inclusive Innovation Network, +N. Through +N we hope to unite innovators, startups and investors globally and partner with disability-focused organizations and the community of people with disabilities. +N is a phenomenal platform for startups to access global markets, connect with investors beyond borders and be a part of a worldwide community of assistive technology innovators. +N is committed to help them build a sustainable enterprise with their products being used across the globe. My dream for +N is to help build one global mission to make this world inclusive for people with disabilities, thank you.
[30:40 – 31:22] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
Welcome to the Founder Fireside. My name is Pete Horsley, I’m the Founder of Remarkable – where technology meets human potential. It gives me great pleasure to introduce three incredible founders to you today. +N hopes to bring together founders so that they can learn from each other, their experience, their knowledge. And today, we’ve got founders from India, Canada and Australia, to bring to you some of their story. So give us the elevator pitch for your businesses.
[31:22 – 31:51] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
AbilityMade exists so that people with disability can access the equipment they need to live their best life. We help orthotists…so we help them meet the demands of their local communities, which, unfortunately, are alarmingly underserved. And we do that by providing a digital solution for manufacturing custom made ankle-foot orthoses. In other words, AFO’s.
[31:51 – 32:27] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
So AVAZ is a communication app for people with disabilities. Since 2009 we’ve changed the life of over 100,000 people and their families in over 50 different countries. It is used by people with autism, cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions. AVAZ enables these people to communicate their thoughts, their ideas, by which they are able to gain access to education, become independent and get included in mainstream society.
[32:27 – 32:45] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
At Braze Mobility we’ve developed the world’s first blind spot sensor system that can be added to any wheelchair transforming it into a smart wheelchair that automatically detects obstacles and provides alerts to the user through intuitive lights, sounds, and vibrations.
[32:45 – 32:55] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
So we can understand your context, let us know a little bit about your business right now. What’s the number of staff and the number of customers that you’re currently serving?
[32:55 – 32:57] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
So we have about 15 people on the team
[32:57 – 33:08] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
Today we have over 150 customers and in terms of our core team, we have really four people on our core management team.
[33:08 – 33:26] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
So our team is at 14 at the moment. Last year was a pretty good one for us, we produced and delivered 350 custom-made 3d printed AFOs and empowered approximately 180 children, who now have increased independence.
[33:26 – 33:34] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
I want you to take us back to where it all started and tell us what the world was like when you first began your business.
[33:34 – 34:55] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
So back in 2009 there’s a school here in Chennai called, Vidya Sagar and they had organized a conference called the Silent Revolution, which brought in product designers from a lot of the top universities in the city and showcases to them what the different kind of challenges that people with speech disabilities face. So back in 2009, if you had a speech disability, you were dependent on like low-tech pictures that you would show those picture exchange systems, or you were dependent on extremely expensive, like five to ten thousand dollar bulky devices that were imported from the west. That was the problem that we wanted to kind of solve and Vidya Sagar was one of the schools that kind of really encouraged us to go ahead and solve this problem. At that point in time, these bulky imported devices that you used to get, didn’t have any kind of maintenance or support in India. One, but more importantly, none of them be contextualized for the Indian environment itself. So at the heart of it, ours is a communication app right. So if we are going to have a discussion about say the food in India, it’s going to be very different for the conversation if you were talking about food in Australia or Canada. So that’s why that contextualization is very important.
[34:55 – 36:24] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
That’s a really interesting question, I think origin stories are already always interesting. Mine I would say started in 2006. I had just graduated from the computer science program at Waterloo and I visited a long-term care facility for the first time, where I noticed a lot of the residents were slumped over in manual wheelchairs that they didn’t have the strength to self-propel. And they weren’t allowed to use power wheelchairs because of safety concerns. So a lot of them had dementia or other cognitive impairments that unfortunately excluded them from the use of power mobility devices. I saw this as a violation of a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, there was no company that was working on this problem at the time, and the technology was also not really there. You know, it was very early stages of sensor technologies even in the automotive industry. And so the most sensible place that you know it seemed like I should go to was academia, and so I ended up doing my PhD and my postdoctoral research on smart wheelchairs and, and you know, fast forward to 2016, I was now a postdoctoral fellow and there was still no industry player solving this problem. And so really more than anything else, just out of frustration I ended up taking the leap out of the academic world into this scary, yet super exciting world of startups. So that’s when I founded the company in 2016.
[36:24 – 37:10] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
AbilityMade started out as a grassroots maker community. Back then, I mean me personally, I was sort of not in the loop. I think I missed the memo about entrepreneurship and startups being a thing. It was pretty early on in our journey where we met you, Pete and the team at the time from Remarkable, and that was really, really special and really important for us because there weren’t that many disability tech focused startups that were out there. And there weren’t that Many case studies or success stories that were public and well-known and so I think that’s a really important thing for the ecosystem.
[37:10 – 37:14] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
What are some of the pivotal moments that you’ve had in developing your business?
[37:14 – 38:59] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
And so we went on this road trip to Washington DC and we went to this conference that was one of the largest rehab conferences in North America. We set up our booth there and really had no idea what to expect. And when we went there we were a huge hit! We had a ton of therapists that were sort of flocking around the booth and telling us how awesome the product was, and how it really solved the need, and how they already had clients they could think of. I think what was the most exciting thing was one of the therapists at that conference actually ended up going back and was a therapist in the US Department of Veterans Affairs and so that particular veterans affairs site wanted to purchase our system. Of course, this was exciting and scary at the same time because this was going to be our first sale, but we actually weren’t quite ready to sell. All we had was this prototype, but wasn’t quite commercial quality and we didn’t plan on launching until October of the year and this was in June or July and so we weren’t quite ready. But the customer couldn’t looked at our supply chain and we looked at where the bottlenecks were and how we could expedite it. And it turns out, the only way we could get a product in the customer’s hand within the next month was if we flew to China and lined up some manufacturers beforehand and brought the parts back with us. And so that’s what we did. And so we had everything organized when we got in there a couple of days before, we were about to head back, all the parts into our hotel room and we flew all the parts in and assembled all the units and got the system out to our customers. So that was crazy and you know rewarding and everything at the same time. But it was really exciting because that was our first sale.
[38:59 – 40:18] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
You know, starting AbilityMade and being a part of it and growing it has changed my life. But I would say that some of the most memorable times, I won’t list them all, would probably be so day one to day three of our crowdfunding campaign. The story or the solution that we were presenting seemed conceivable in many people’s minds. So the crowdfunding campaign we set out to raise, I think it was $25,000 and we’d get you know cash injection through ING Bank who was one of the sponsors at the time. And we ended up raising after day three, ending up equating to $100,000! And then really soon after, the next pivotal moment for me personally but also AbilityMade was for sure the Remarkable Demo Day. The pitch was like one of the most nerve-wracking evenings I think I’ve ever experienced. But like so very rewarding to push myself outside of my comfort zone and yeah and sell our vision you know that was a really cool experience.
[40:18 – 41:34] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
So back in 2013 or when we had just released the product we got a chance to go to Denmark, Copenhagen for an assistive technology conference and that’s when we showcased AVAZ. And there was, there was this lady who was heading the Autism Society of Denmark who looked at our product and was just kind of flawed by the fact that they don’t have anything like this in Denmark. And that kind of was a moment where we realized that we had built something which was obviously applicable in India and kind of contextualized to India, but we could scale it to like different geographies and different locations, by figuring out how we want to position the entire language and the communication system itself. So that was one critical and pivotal point because first, we did a lot of collaborations with different countries. So we released the Danish version, we released the French version. Obviously, there was an English/US version for North America. We then released an Italian version. So the languages then started coming up because a lot of people, a lot of parents and organizations from those countries approached us asking us to collaborate and create a product.
[41:34 – 41:42] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
What advice would you give to other founders in different parts of the world trying to grow businesses for impact?
[41:42 – 42:28] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
So I think one kind of important piece of advice would be to get product-market fit. I know it’s a bit of a cliche term, but I think it’s important to also understand what product-market fit actually means. Which is one, is that the product is of has to be right for the customer. But also it means that there is a market that you can reach out to, or you have channels that you have figured out to monetize that right. So how do you take it to the customer, as well. So product market fit is not only about like your product working for x number of people, but also how do you get that distribution also right, or what are the channels to get right. I think that is an important aspect that one should think as you’re starting and if you’re new.
[42:28 – 43:29] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
I was given this advice early on and it has really been a savior for me. It’s a quote by an African American lesbian activist and that caring for yourself is not self-indulgent it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare. And her name was Audrey Lorde and that stuck with me because the work that you do when you’re doing it with a purpose and you have a community of people who are left out and marginalized, like the pressure is up. You have a lot on your shoulders, a lot, and you have more on your shoulders than you know a just you know just a commercial corporate company. That can be crushing sometimes and I guess if you’re not caring for yourself and doing things that preserve yourself then you know there’s risk factors there.
[43:29 – 44:10] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
I think one of the biggest pieces of advice I can really give to any assistant technology company is I see so many assistive tech products for people with disability that are really not usable And I think part of the part of that is because oftentimes the end-users are not involved in the design process. So I would highly recommend making the end-user really part of, not just the design and development process, but also the go-to-market strategy. Because when it comes to sales and marketing, it’s also really important to build a brand and a message that actually resonates with your end-users.
[44:10 – 44:14] Pete Horsley, Founder, Remarkable
What does a network like +N mean to you?
[44:14 – 45:11] Narayanan “Nadu” Ramakrishnan, CEO, Avaz Inc
A network like +N really helps in two crucial aspects. One is just learning – learning from other startups. This community will play a big role in us creating better solutions for the market as well. I think the other aspect in which this network will be really helpful, is that of partnerships and distribution. So for example, we partner with organizations in different countries to create a custom version of ours in their language, specific to their geographies but it would really be helpful to have another company, or a partner there who can take it to market. Because they know they would know the market better. They would understand the customer and their language better than us sitting in India and trying to do some of that. So I think that’s where this network is really it’s going to be powerful where in better AT solutions will come up, and better distribution channels will come up.
[45:11 – 45:37] Melissa Fuller, Co-Founder and Director, AbilityMade
And yeah so I guess the network means that we’ll have a hyper-scalable platform to engage and learn from each other, which is really exciting. And the last thing I would say is that it means that we’ll be able to form interpersonal ties you know with people who work hard assert themselves, and then use their imaginations to shape the world and there should be more of that’s a really cool thing.
[45:37 – 46:32] Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO, Braze Mobility
You know I think in this day and age it’s so important to think about becoming a global company from day one. You know I think a lot of companies maybe start off saying well I’m gonna you know start small, and then maybe a few years think about you know going international and for us +N means access to you know global community. And now as we’re looking to go overseas as well, we’re looking at European markets, you know we’re just rolling out in Australia, New Zealand right now, I think it’s really exciting because I think accessibility is a global issue and so being able to understand what some of the geographic barriers are, you know, how funding is different in different places, I think having a network that we can now start using to share market intel and these resources that we have is going to be phenomenal. So I’m super excited about +N and I really just can’t wait to get involved!
[46:43 – 47:11] Varun Chandak Founder of Access to Success Labs
Hey again everyone, I hope you enjoyed learning about the Inclusive Innovation Network today. But, what now? Well, now you should have a button available on your screen. If you click on it, it will take you to a short form where you can let us know what you’d like to see from the network. You can also tell us there if you’d like to become a member. I hope you do. Wherever you might be watching from I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day or evening. Thank you.