Vision to the Blind: A word with Project Mudra (Winners, Conquest ’16)

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The heat of Conquest ’17 is picking up and so is our energy. We interviewed Aman Srivastav from Project Mudra which is also a Conquest Alumnus and we enquired about their plans.

Conquest Team: What is the problem that Project Mudra is trying to solve?

Aman: We’re trying to solve the global problem of low literacy among visually impaired people. So, our aim is to essentially change the way visually impaired people educate themselves using technology. We’ll be creating products and services for the same.

Our first product, which is called Annie, it can teach a visually impaired person how to read, write and type in braille. The name ‘Annie’ comes from Helen Keller’s teacher whose name was Anne Sullivan and is really a personification of her teachings and existence. Annie apart from its basic function can also support a variety of content.

Conquest Team: What are you working on presently?

Aman: We’re presently increasing no. of lessons on the platform. We’re working with RNIB(Royal National Institute for the Blind) in London to generate more content and lessons which would really half the rate at which visually impaired people learn.

In the current system, there is no interactive educational content & learning and the old system is still prevalent in which they use wooden blocks and nails on them. Sources like Khan Academy and Coursera aren’t really there for the blind and there are no substitutes for them at the moment. The feedback from RNIB is that this hasn’t been done anywhere and is very new and fresh.

Conquest Team: What were the problems you faced initially?

Aman: We haven’t scaled up as much because we’re a hardware company and scaling up manufacturing is very capital intensive. So we’re presently fundraising and getting that will allow us to release our first batch of devices. It’ll be very challenging to scale up in general in terms of operations, logistics and manufacturing. The first challenge is to convince the people who are consumers and India isn’t the friendliest of markets really. The other challenge is to convince the investors. The working capital requirement is a challenge we face every day.

Conquest Team: How did working with RNIB come about?

Aman: We got selected for Mass challenge just after Conquest. Sanskriti, who is one of the co-founders moved to London for a few months. Mass Challenge is essentially an impact first accelerator so they only take companies which have an impact angle. So they give you office space and other stuff and they take no equity. We got a great feedback from them. Our priority, for now, is to get this product into developed countries’ markets because people would such a device happily instead of questioning the price too much for affordability reasons.

Conquest Team: How was your experience at Conquest?

Aman: Conquest is an excellent event. So I went through the entire process from filling up the form to talking to mentors to the finale. The mentors were incredibly helpful and they’re still in touch. The media attention and everything else was great. We went for a lot of competitions but the impact Conquest had was tremendously different from these other competitions. Everything was very well organised and the judgement was very transparent.

The judges who came were great and the networking we did there was very valuable.

Conquest Team: How do early stage startups go about validating their products and services?

Aman: All validation comes from the users. In India, customers are not equivalent to users because supposedly, it is expected that there is going to be an NGO who’ll pay for our devices and teach other people. But in the UK, the person who is going to pay will most probably be a user. The best validation for a product is a user and the best one for a business is a customer. ‘Go to the users and figure it out as they are your first touchpoint anyway.’

Conquest Team: There has been a rising trend of social enterprises these days in the startup ecosystem. What do you have to say about that? What are the challenges?

Aman: It is really great that a lot of social ventures are coming up. Innovation is something that can be driven by profit only that’s what I believe. There are strong business fundamentals in such models. That’s why we didn’t associate a profit-nonprofit term with us. There are infinite problem statements in India that need to be addressed and social enterprises can be the answer to those.

One of the major problems is we can’t take donations now that we’re a ‘for profit’ company. That is a trade-off here. But yes, we can raise investments by selling a part of our company. So we can’t legally accept money as a gift from people who want to help us. We can accept gifts like the prizes that we win in competitions like Conquest etc. So we figured out a way for this too. TOMS shoes had a model in which they gave away an extra pair of shoes if you buy one from them. So we adopted that model and a lot of profit based companies do that. But the best model to be followed is a hybrid model like that of Avanti Learning to have a profit as well as nonprofit divisions.

It is also great that impact funds are also starting nowadays. The condition for them is that philanthropic RoI is needed for the people who are investing and they’ll only invest in the companies which are solving tough social problems. Although India doesn’t have a lot of those. People aren’t really looking to invest in social enterprises. Even in 2015 when there was a lot of funding happening in general for startups, the seed funding investors didn’t invest in social enterprises because it wasn’t in their mandate to invest in those profiles. This is actually a very big problem.

Conquest Team: Were there been any moments when you wanted to quit or just wanted to leave?

Aman: We didn’t have a moment where we wanted to leave, but there was a moment when we thought we were going to fail very badly. It was the demo to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. So we went to the café where was the exhibition was supposed to happen a night before the event to check out the venue and the hardware setup. We go there and setup the device and it wasn’t working. There were issues with some buttons. We only had one night to fix it all as the event was supposed to start at 7:30 AM next morning and we didn’t sleep at all. That was the scariest moment for us.

We’ve had low-capital issues too but we’ve somehow managed those.

Conquest Team: Any words of wisdom for budding startups currently eyeing Conquest?

Aman: Keep your best foot forward because it is not going to be an easy ride but definitely something you’ll learn a lot from. We really didn’t expect to win. After seeing all the pitches and other startups, I told Sanskriti we should’ve prepared harder. Although we did prepare properly, but seeing such a competition made me feel we could’ve done so much more. It came out as a total surprise when our name was called in the end when announcing the winners.

The mentor connect is truly great and the entire event is like no other.

 

We thank Aman for his valuable time and wish him and his team all the best for their endeavours. Are you the next big startup of the nation? Do you have what it takes to #ScaleTheSummit ? Register for Conquest ’17, today! (www.conquest.org.in)

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