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07 May 2010
By Ravi Teja Sharma
Innovation Labs’ device for special children costs one tenth of mkt price
CHILDREN with cerebral palsy are as intelligent as most other kids, but they lag behind because of their poor motor skills. These children can, however, improve their skills if someone or some external aid can augment their communication abilities. This is where Invention Labs steps in.
The four–year old Chennai–based startup has developed a portable device called AVAZ. A child can interact with the device through motion sensors. A nod of the head in a certain way produces characters on the devices and the prediction engine then helps them construct a sentence. It doesn’t stop here. A text–tospeech engine then reads the sentence aloud. But what makes AVAZ unique is that while the cheapest such device in the US costs upwards of $7,000, Invention Labs sells the same for less than one tenth of that price i.e at Rs 30,000 (under $700).
“A product like AVAZ can help not only cerebral palsy patients but also others who might need alternative communication aids,” says Rajul Padmanabhan, director of Vidya Sagar (earlier Spastics Society of India), a voluntary organisation based in Chennai. According to estimates, about 7% of the population is afflicted by some form of disability of which close to 3% would be cerebral palsy patients.
“R&D has been our bread and butter since we started,” says Aswin Chandrasekaran, who is a 2003 batch engineer from IITMadras. Indeed, the four co–founders of Invention–Ashwin Chandrasekharan, Ajit Narayanan, Mohd Adib Ibrahim and Preetham Shivanna (all IIT Madras grads, though not from the same batch)–decided early that generic product development research and R&D was their forte. After three years of research for other companies, they finally launched their first product AVAZ.
After engineering, all of them had gone their own way. When they started talking again in 2006, they were bit by the innovation bug. “We are modeled on global innovation company 3M. We find ideas, develop them and then market them. We are sector agnostic,” Mr Chandrasekaran says. The company was formed considering the four had varied skill–management, engineering and operations–which would make for a well rounded team. Their journey began as a third party R&D unit. Companies looking for cheap outside research to improve product quality or functionality, would give them contracts. “We concentrated on embedded systems space, mostly electronics, putting intelligence into machines.”
That is how Invention got to work with companies like Vortex, which was developing a rural ATM that runs on solar power. They have also worked with ISRO on control systems for their satellites and with the Army on control systems for its simulators. In their second year, the company explored the idea of developing products of its own and found an opportunity in cerebral palsy. Since then, they have been working with Vidya Sagar in Chennai, which has helped them in their research.
The team has realised that there could be many more uses of the device. Apart from helping children with cerebral palsy, the device could be used by people with Autism, those who might have lost their ability to communicate due to a stroke, patients who are temporarily disabled post an operation and also older people. The hardware will be the same, while the software applications will differ. Padmanabhan though points out that at present the device can only help those who can read. The software for the product is open source and the algorithms have been developed by the team. Using the device, such children have been able to attend regular school and also interact with their peers.
With its first product in place, and a few more in the development stages, the startup is now looking at raising close to $1 million from venture funds. Earlier it had got seed funding from IIT–Madras’ Rural Technology & Business Incubator (RTBI). Till date, Invention operates out of RTBI.