Turning the Refreshable Braille Display Market Around
Nov 09, 2011
William Mears ’11 is psyched. The company he worked with as part of his studies in the Jenkins Graduate School of Management in the NC State University Poole College of Management’s technology, entrepreneurship and commercialization program, (TEC) is coming to fruition. It's called Polymer Braille, Inc. and along with post doctorate associate at NC State University Dr. Peichin Yang and Dr. Paul Franzon, an Australian researcher, Mears is helping create and market a newer, lighter alternative to a conventional Braille reader.
Typical Braille readers are heavy, cumbersome and expensive, costing $6,000 to $8,000. Most read only one or two lines of text, typically no more than 40 characters, at a time. The new eBraille reader developed by Mears and his team allows blind users to read a full-page display of Braille at one time. Mears can't discuss further details about the technology or production because the marketplace is so competitive. But he can say he and his team are one step away from building the prototype. "It's very exciting and will turn the refreshable Braille display market around," he says.
The necessities of funding
In 2005, the group received phase one funding from a NIDRR grant. It wasn't a huge amount, $600,000, but it was enough to get started. Now that the grant money has run out, Mears is looking to secure additional funding from the same grant. "We are hopeful," he says. The company already has many supporters. Multiple researchers including several in Asia and Australia have expressed support of this new initiative. Experts at NC State University are advising Mears on finding future investors. TEC program director, Prof. Roger Debo, is also offering counsel. Mears and his supporters feel confident introducing innovative products to the market because they see legitimate demand.
A bright marketplace
The bottom line is Braille literacy has dropped. This segment of the population has a literacy rate of 10% compared with a 90% literacy rate among the full-sighted population. Consequently, the National Federation of the Blind reports that 70% of working age blind adults are unemployed. Each year 75,000 more people in the U.S. will lose their sight or become visually impaired. Meanwhile, the refreshable Braille display market is valued at $20 million globally and the assistive technology market is estimated to be worth $155 million.
Mears and his counterparts think they are on to something and with the right investors can create an innovative product. The team hopes the introduction of a new device such as the eBraille reader will increase total market size, just as the iPhone increased the cell phone market by nearly 20%. They also see potential for the technology being used in several other assistive technology products such as Braille note takers and GPS systems. This would also increase market potential. “We know our technology will find its place," Mears says.
What he learned from the TEC program
Mears says the best thing about the TEC program is that it teaches you to look at all facets of business. “You have to develop a product and see if there is a real need. From there you have to try to market and take a product to fruition.” He also loved working in teams with different types of MBAs. One person on his team, for instance, was a former veterinarian. “The TEC was such a great program, I owe it everything," he says.