In a bid to support entrepreneurs and innovation in the assistive technology space, Prosus the global consumer internet group of Naspers on Thursday announced the top three winners of the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (SICA) 2021.

Trestle Labs (Bangalore), SignAble Communication (Bangalore) and Lifespark Technologies (Mumbai) are the winners of this year's Prosus SICA challenge, developing assistive technology (AT) to aid persons with disabilities.

The announcement was made today by Prosus at the conclusion of year two of the Prosus SICA initiative in partnership with Invest India, Social Alpha and the World Health Organisation.

Selected from over 170 applicants, the top startups represent diverse themes supporting visual, speech and language disabilities and neurodegenerative disease. Trestle, SignAble and Lifespark will receive grants of ₹25,00,000, ₹18,00,000 and ₹12,00,000 respectively.

Launched by Prosus in 2020 in partnership with Invest India, Social Alpha and World Health Organisation, the initiative invites Indian start-ups with the most promising solutions in the assistive technology space to compete for an annual grant and access to the Prosus SICA mentorship programme. Prosus has committed $250,000 (₹1,65,00,000) over three years to this challenge.

Sehraj Singh, India Managing Director, Prosus, said, “When we launched SICA in 2020 we made a commitment to support entrepreneurs and innovation in the assistive technology space and highlight a great business case to promote investments in the accessibility sector.”

“I believe SICA in just its second year has helped bring us a lot closer to our ambition. In the year since we launched SICA, our top startups received follow-on funding from industry leaders, built deeper business partnerships, enhanced relationships with government and gained entry into new markets. The recognition of innovation in assistive technology has inspired new founders and innovation in the sector,” added Singh.

The top three startups will also be inducted into the Prosus SICA mentorship programme, along with TinkerTech Laboratories from New Delhi (hearing impairment solution) and Visioapps Technology from Gurgaon (visual impairment solution), which were placed in fourth and fifth position respectively.

Here are the top three winners of Prosus SICA 2021:

Trestle Labs

The top start up, Trestle Labs has developed a solution – Kibo – that translates and digitises printed, audio, handwritten and digital content in 60 global languages, including 12 Indian languages.

“Our vision is to empower the blind and visually impaired community to access any kind of printed handwritten or digital content independently through audio in real-time,” explained Bonny Dave, Founder, Trestle Labs Pvt Ltd.

The company has developed three products across three different aspects of a visually impaired person’s life, including lifestyle, learning and employment.

The Kibo range consists of the Kibo app, a Kibo XS device for scanning and listening to hardcopy printed and handwritten documents and the Kibo desk meant for listening, translating and digitising images and scanned PDFs.

The Kibo app is already being used by over 40,000 users in 15 countries including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

It aims to make educational institutions and workplaces inclusive. Thus far this product has over 10,000 monthly active users, has positively impacted 45,000 individuals and made over 300 institutions inclusive. The Kibo app is empowering people across 15 countries and over 22 million documents have been made accessible through it, with users spending over 40 million minutes of reading-learning time on the platform. 75 per cent of its existing customer base is the B2B segment, wherein it focuses on schools, colleges, libraries, NGOs, and workplaces while the B2C segment includes 25 per cent of individuals, who are visually impaired individuals, primarily working-class individuals.

Over the next three years Kibo has plans to increase its geographic presence to South Asia and SE Asia and increase its impact to over two lakh individuals.

“Through the SICA program we plan to enhance our technology capabilities, grow our team and scale our solutions across three states in India by leveraging the expertise and experience through the mentorship program offered under SICA through various partner organisations,” said Dave.

SignAble Communication

SignAble Communication, which has placed second, addresses speech and language disability through a video remote interpretation (VRI) solution that provides live interpretation in Indian Sign Language (ISL) via a mobile app. Essentially, the solution provides live human interpreters-on-demand for anyone, anytime, anywhere, affordably, and at the touch of a button.

“It (the solution) enables deaf people to communicate with hearing people ubiquitously and hearing people to talk to deaf people ubiquitously,” explained Tarun Sarwal, CEO, SignAble Communication Pvt. Ltd

Deaf persons suffer from social isolation, the majority are illiterate, have little or no access to education and employment. The preferred language of communication is sign language but very few people, even in their families, learn it.

“Most people don't learn sign language, but the only way that they can communicate is through interpreters,” explained Sarwal.

Sarwal further highlighted the need for homegrown startups in the assistive technology space to address such issues.

The solution aims to facilitate easy communication and enable independent living for deaf people by offering them a mobile interpretation service that can enable them to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime eliminating the need for the scarcely available interpreters. It connects the network of sign language interpreters across the country with the deaf through mobile phones via video calls.

Currently SignAble has over 17,000 lifetime users. Over the next three years, SignAble plans to increase its users to over 500,000 and expand into markets like Kenya, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

“In the government space, in the big in the business space, and in the personal space, we really feel that this is a profitable thing,” said Sarwal.

Lifespark Technologies

The youngest startup of them all, Lifespark Technologies placed third. It is a healthcare technology company building a platform for continuous, optimal therapy in chronic neurodegenerative disorders starting with Parkinson's disease (the fastest growing neurological disease).

“We are building solutions to help improve care. In chronic conditions, we started out with Parkinson's disease,” Amey Desai, CEO, Lifespark Technologies told BusinessLine.

“Living with chronic, non-communicable disease is very hard. Not only does it have debilitating symptoms, it will often have a domino effect on emotional and mental health, because it causes social isolation, it doesn't allow you to do the things you would do normally. And this is especially more troublesome in the elderly,” he further explained.

Their product comprises a wearable device and a linked digital platform. The device provides sensory cue-based therapy to improve gait, reduce falls and improve quality of life, while the app provides data to physicians and therapists as well as emergency alerts to caregivers. Its digital platform is currently in beta.

Its product WALK comprises a wearable mobility aid and an accompanying digital platform that uses the concept of sensory cueing to alleviate the occurrence of bradykinesia, akinesia and freezing of gait.

Parkinson's is a chronic condition with a constant possibility of falls and other injuries, and care management is important and time-intensive.

“Parkinson's is very debilitating because the fear of falling will cause them to not move so much become socially isolated. So here we build a solution that prevents falls, and helps them to get back on their feet,” said Desai.

The solution also aims to reduce the cost of chronic care. Additionally, this tech will create insights for improved therapy and superscale research.

Lifespark is planning to capture a 15 per cent market share in India by 2024, roughly translating to 36000 patients.

The SICA challenge required the startups to have developed a prototype and completed user testing of their innovation. This year, the jury comprised technical experts and clinicians, disability NGOs, policy experts and investors.

A special focus for the jury was the user-friendliness of the products outside of controlled therapy and rehabilitation sessions. Geriatric AT and Robotics in AT were well-represented amongst the participants this year, in addition to more prominent AT themes like mobility, access and medical screening, Prosus said.

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