While on our six-city tour of the Tier 2 startup ecosystem with BIGShift, we discovered several promising startups. This series will cover some of the most innovative startups. This is a profile of Ahmedabad’s Torchit, which has taken an initiative to empower the visually impaired with its assistive tech.
When Louis Braille created his eponymous tactile writing system in the early 19th century, he was just 15. Braille allowed the visually impaired and blind to read, write and communicate on paper. For nearly 200 years it has been a guiding light for those without sight, but when it comes to movement, the visually-impaired have had to rely on white canes and seeing-eye dogs to get around.
The Internet of Things revolution and technology is changing that. The lack of assistive tech is a major hindrance in the overall development of the differently-abled. But Ahmedabad-based Torchit has a tech solution that hopes to make navigation around rooms and closed spaces easier for the visually-impaired.
Globally, over 2.2 Bn people are suffering from blindness or visual impairment, and while moving around in the real world is not a problem in many cases, walking and detecting objects and barriers within rooms and closed spaces can be a tough ask.
Cofounded by Hunny Bhagchandani, Torchit brings ultrasonic sensors and sonar-like ability to white canes that the visually-impaired usually carry around. Inspired by his work with visually-impaired through an NGO, the first Torchit prototype was just a regular torch where the bulb was replaced with an ultrasonic sensor. The sensor detects obstacles by transmitting and receiving sonic waves just like a sonar or the natural ultrasonic capabilities of a bat.
Just like blind bats use sonar to navigate, Torchit’s flagship product, called Saarthi, uses the ultrasonic sensor to help those with impaired vision understand how close or far objects are in a closed room, lobby or slightly more open areas. The haptic feedback built into Torchit lets its users know how far or close objects are and allows them to course-correct.
“You switch on the product and then you select the range for a closed room – 2 ft, for a lobby kind of area – 4 ft and for open areas and streets – 8 ft, and you just mount the device on any white cane, whenever it vibrates, it is a signal that there is an obstacle in front so you have to course-correct by moving right or left which you also figure out through the device itself,” Torchit cofounder Mohit Chelani told Inc42.
Safety and ease of user were the two biggest factors that determined Torchit’s development and feature-set. To make it convenient for anyone with visual impairments or blindness, Saarthi fits into a conventional white cane that most such users are already familiar with and trained for. Torchit’s internal quality control team checks each and every unit before dispatch and provides a year-long device warranty to cover for any faults in the device.
Building Torchit One Step At A Time
Assistive tech is not something that Indian startups have focussed on too much, despite the renowned Jaipur leg being invented in India. As a result, there’s not much to go on for startups or entrepreneurs focussing on this area.
“Our mentors have played a critical role. They have helped us in product development and getting the initial set of users to test and give feedback around the device,” Bhagchandani told us when asked about the challenges in the early days.
To reach customers, Torchit has three primary sales channels — corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, state-sponsored projects and individual purchases.
“We have successfully completed CSR projects with companies like ONGC, Wagh Bakri, Oil India, HDFC, GRUH Finance, MLM India, we are in talks with Haryana and UP Government for distribution in those states too. Since the device is affordable from an individual’s perspective, we have sold more than 3K Saarthis directly to users,” said Bhagchandani.
Thanks to its international appeal, Torchit has gained grants from Millennium Alliance, which is a collaboration between the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), UK Aid Direct and Facebook. It has also received seed funding from angel investors.
The founders maintained that while there are definitely international alternatives in this category of assistive tech devices, what differentiates Saarthi is the product utility, experience and affordability. “We have always tried to have the customer experience first and then integrated the tech to provide that, so even the current version of our product Saarthi that you see is the 18th prototype. We have integrated feedback from more than 2K users,” Bhagchandani added.
Using Technology For Inclusion
“We intend to stay ahead of the competition again by sticking to our philosophy of designing tech-based assistive aid which is simple, effective and affordable.” — Hunny Bhagchandani
Bhagchandani and Chelani are targetting 10K more users by the end of the year, but beyond helping the visually-impaired, the duo is looking to expand the use-cases with new tech and new products. This time it’s related to development and knowledge-gathering, but the theme is holistic empowerment.
“We are developing another product with IIT Madras & MIT, Boston to make education and learning more accessible for the visually-impaired,” Chelani told us.
It’s also in talks with Google to bring support for the visually-impaired on Google Maps for navigation and movement.
“We believe our unique proposition is our approach to inclusion. It’s not just about making products and selling them. We are also actively working towards hiring visually-impaired workers and giving them a subsistence. We are trying to build a company for the blind, with the blind,” Bhagchandani signed off.