In conversation with Aman Srivastava (Founder and COO, Thinkerbell Labs)

Thinkerbell Labs is a BITS Pilani, KK Birla Goa Campus startup. DoJMA got a chance to talk to Mr. Aman Srivastava, founder and COO at Thinkerbell Labs. He talked about his journey from college startup to a business idea that has potential to increase Braille literacy around the globe. With investors such as Anand Mahindra (CMD, Mahindra Group) and Indian Angel Network on board, Thinkerbell Labs is credited with creating the world’s first smart classroom for visually impaired. Read on to know more:

DoJMA: How was Project Mudra (now Thinkerbell Labs) conceptualised and Who were involved in it? 
Aman: Project Mudra initially started out as an EDTECH initiative for the visually impaired and it was conceptualised by Sanskriti, a 2012 batch student and me. It was born out of a discussion in A-mess about solenoids and how they could revolutionise equipment for the visually impaired. We started our endeavour by reading up on the same, extensively. At the same time, we were in the organising team of a Raspberry Pi workshop and we took the opportunity to play around with the Raspberry Pi. We put two and two together and at that point in time, we were contemplating on how we, as engineers can do something impactful for the blind, with the limited skills we had, at that moment. That laid the cornerstone for our idea and we researched a lot and realised that Braille has many use cases but there is a lack of awareness about it.

DoJMA: Did the team start out with Sanskriti and you only? How did the team build up to its present strength?
Aman: Yes, Sanskriti and I began working on the project in late 2014. In 2015, Saif joined the team. He was a year junior to us in college. Since Sanskriti and I were Computer Science and Engineering students, we lacked expertise about hardware. The hardware built by us was the result of learning on the go. Since we weren’t experts, we got Saif, an expert in CAD design, to sign up for the project. He designed the first model of Annie, our then prototype.

DoJMA: What is the strength of the team, at present?
Aman: Our team has 11 members right now. Out of the 11, we have two Practice School 2 interns and 9 full time employees.

DoJMA: What were the major hurdles that you had to face?
Aman: In college, the biggest hurdle was obtaining a space to work in and once this impediment was overcome, the next challenge was to acquire a grant or capital to prototype the first few devices and validate our market. We won the SURA award and this award gave us two things, cash and unlimited access to on-campus facilities, which proved to be invaluable to us. We would go to the mechanical workshop and sit there for nights together, waiting for our prototype to get completed.

DoJMA: Which labs did you use extensively for your project?
Aman: We used the workshop for tasks such as 3D printing and we used the EEE labs for verifying the electronics portion of the project.

DoJMA: Can you briefly describe how the software and hardware works for Annie?
Aman: Currently, Annie is a device which can teach a visually impaired child how to read, write and type in Braille. It has all the different teaching aids used by a teacher to teach a blind child, packaged in itself. These teaching aids are in the form of hardware modules. The software layer on top of the hardware is an interactive audio which impersonates the virtual persona Annie. The inspiration for the name ‘Annie’ is Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan. Annie is a persona that teaches you, it corrects a student when he/she commits an error. This is the software and hardware which is currently integrated into Annie. We are also working on developing the software ecosystem further. A companion app has been developed, for parents and teachers to track each child’s progress. The app features a dashboard to track the progress of groups of students for government stakeholders. It also allows for the deployment of a particular content to a large group at the same time, in order to enhance learning outcomes drastically.

DoJMA: Has Annie been deployed in any place?
Aman: Recently, we deployed Annie to Ranchi and it became India’s first Smart Class for the visually impaired. We deployed a ‘pilot’ batch of 20 devices. It was a major learning experience for us. We had undertaken many field studies and trials, but this was the first deployment of the product.

DoJMA: Are there any other plans in the future for deployment of Annie?
Aman: We are currently in touch with Rajasthan government and a couple of foundations in Bangalore to deploy the product to schools in the vicinity.

DoJMA: What do you think that Annie will have in the society?
Aman: Currently, the visually impaired people drop out of the education pipeline because of low literacy. There are a lot of studies that have proved that Braille literacy is correlated with the employability of a visually impaired person. A number of governments and especially in the developed countries like the USA and UK have actually have started working on this problem. The global issue at hand is the shortage of educators. In dearth of special educators, a product like Annie can solve this problem of deficiency. Annie has a self learning component, so that the child will need minimum interaction with a personal educator. We are enhancing the software further to eliminate the need of a teacher entirely. The student will only require monitoring. This is how Annie will create an impact on education for the blind. Our long term vision is that once Annie has increased Braille literacy, the visually impaired will cease to be a liability to the economy and become contributors of the economy by becoming tax paying citizens. The independence of the blind will positively boost the country’s productivity to a large extent since a majority of the visually impaired is not able to support itself.

DoJMA: Considering the cost that has gone into development, how effective is Annie for the poor?
Aman: At the moment, we are a very small company and we are doing deployments in batches of limited sizes. The only way to reach out to someone who can’t afford the device is through a patron or a sponsoring organisation. In developing countries particularly, we are going to face this problem. To tackle this problem, we have come up with an organisational and individual patron program, in which individuals or organisations can buy these devices and give it to the needy. That is our work right now. In the future, we hope to establish centers of learning, in which sponsors can fund the education of the needy. Under the Sarvasiksha Abhiyaan or the Right to Education Act, we can establish centres of learning, sponsored by a benefactor. These centres will have a large number of this product set up for users to benefit from them. This idea is still under heavy debate as we need to contemplate on how to achieve this outcome. Obviously, the maximum amount of change we can bring into this world is when we can make an impact the person who needs the aid, the most.

DoJMA: What is Project Mudra’s future? What are you working on, next?
Aman: We are working towards ramping up our production capacity to meet the growing demand for the product. In order to achieve this, we are hiring a lot of people for the mechanical and manufacturing side of the product. We have started to get a lot of inbound requests from the UK as well as from within India. In order to address that, we need to have our supply chain and manufacturing side figured out. We are also bolstering our efforts on the content development side. Since Annie has found a place for itself, we need to keep making new content which can enhance learning experiences. We are working on apps, games and a variety of other interactive audio tactile content which can be delivered to Annie. This is how our value proposition is increasing. In the next two years, we aim to rise from early education to employability. We have embarked on the journey of impacting the life of a visually impaired person. This is what we intend to do in the next couple of years.

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This interview is edited for enhancing reading experience.

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