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Sunday 30 November 2014

Intel funding to develop printer for blind

subhum-banerjee-and-braille-printerA 13-year-old Indian-origin boy has received a huge investment from Intel for developing a low-cost printer for the blind, making him the youngest tech entrepreneur funded by a venture capital firm.

Shubham Banerjee, CEO of the Braille printer maker Braigo Labs, had closed an early round funding with Intel Capital, the company's venture capital arm, last month to develop a prototype of low-cost Braille printer.

But to attend the event, Banerjee had to take the day off from middle school. That’s because he’s just 13 years old — making him, quite possibly, the youngest recipient of venture capital in Silicon Valley history. (He’s definitely the youngest to receive an investment from Intel Capital.)

“I would like all of us to get together and help the visually impaired, because people have been taking advantage of them for a long time,” Banerjee said. “So I would like that to stop.”

By “taking advantage,” Banerjee is referring to the high price of Braille printers today, usually above $2,000. By contrast, Braigo Labs plans to bring its printer to market for less than $500.

Banerjee has invented a new technology that will facilitate this price cut. Patent applications are still pending, so he wouldn’t divulge any of the details. But the technology could also be used to create a dynamic Braille display — something that shows one line of text at a time by pushing small, physical pixels up and down, and which currently costs $6,500, according to Braigo advisor Henry Wedler, who is blind.

Banerjee also figures that volume production will help keep the price low. Currently, Braille printers cost so much because the demand is low, so current manufacturers need to set a high price in order to recoup their costs.

“The truth is that demand is low in the U.S.,” Banerjee told me. But, he added, if you brought the price low enough there would be huge demand outside the U.S.

Banerjee built the version version of his Lego Braille printer for a science fair. He didn’t know anything about Braille beforehand. In fact, he’d asked his parents how blind people read, he said onstage, and they were too busy to answer. “Go Google it,” he said they told him, so he did.

After learning about Braille, he came up with the idea to make a Braille printer. He showed it at his school’s science fair, then later entered it into the Synopsys Science & Technology Championship, where he won first prize, which included a big trophy and a $500 check.

After that, he started getting a lot of attention on his Facebook page. People kept asking him if they could buy one, he said, which led to the idea of creating a company.

Lego was just for the first prototype, by the way: Future versions will be made with more traditional materials.

So how did Intel come to invest in such a young inventor? His father, Niloy, works for Intel — but that’s not exactly how it happened, according to Niloy.

After working with the beta version of Intel Edison (the chip company’s tiny embeddable microprocessor) at a summer camp, Banerjee’s project came to the attention of Intel, which invited him to show off his printer at the Intel Developer Forum. After appearing at IDF, Intel Capital came calling.

Young Banerjee seems composed in front of crowds, which should serve him well. (That’s not surprising, given that Braigo’s website touts coverage on everything from BoingBoing and SlashGear to CNN and NPR.) When asked onstage, in front of 1,000 entrepreneurs, investors, and Intel employees, how he knew that the printer worked even though he doesn’t read Braille, Banerjee answered immediately, “I Googled it.” The crowd laughed.

“I’m happy that I live in Silicon Valley,” Banerjee said. “So many smart people.”

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