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Innovation unbound: Winning startups tackle social issues

25 Aug 2019Digital Society
6 minute read

Smart white sticks for the partially sighted, helping children with cerebral palsy, and nudging millennials onto the housing ladder - meet some of the winning startups tackling social issues at 2019’s Unbound London event.

For many blind people, a smartphone is a lifeline.

Visually impaired users can use apps like Microsoft’s Seeing AI, which narrates the world around you using artificial intelligence.

And BeSpecular, where a community of volunteers describe what’s in front of a camera phone.

But holding a phone at the same time as a walking stick also is a problem.

White sticks, providing an indicator a person using them is visually impaired, were born in 1921.

Bristol photographer James Biggs lost his sight after an accident, and painted his to be more visible to passing traffic.

A decade later in Paris, a woman called Guilly d’Herbemont began a movement which presented 5,000 white sticks to blind war veterans and civilians. She paid for them all herself.

So what if you could make a white cane which was also a smart, connected device, thought Gökhan Meriçliler, a young Turkish-born engineer.


Stick it out

Mr Meriçliler had been co-president of Turkey’s Young Guru Academy, a group of volunteers who try to approach social problems through innovation and cooperation.

And he also was co-founder of Poi Labs, which uses beacons to provide indoor navigation for visually impaired people in 30 Turkish shopping centres.

He calls it a solution for “indoor navigation”, in university campuses and museums as well as shopping centres, providing “real time description” of the environment.

At the cinema the platform helps even more – describing “where the movie theatre is, what movie is showing, and providing real time photo description” of the film.

So Mr Meriçliler set about creating a smart cane called WeWALK, drafting into the project several people he’d worked with at the Young Guru Academy and Poi Labs.

WeWALK won the Tech for Good prize at the Unbound London innovation conference recently.

The cane works through “a Bluetooth connection with your phone so it’s always connected”, he says, and it “has a speaker and microphone built in,” he says.

So “you can talk to your cane and it answers you.”

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Picture credit: WeWalk

Mr Meriçliler and his team hope to develop features to help the smart stick communicate with bus drivers to signal a visually impaired passenger is trying to board a bus.

“Busses often arrive so close to each other, a visually impaired person cannot identify which bus has arrived, and drivers cannot understand sometimes there is a visually impaired person trying to board,” he says.

So in the future the cane will be able to notify both, “so they can meet each other in a very easy way.”

WeWALK is about to begin a partnership with Professor Washington Ochieng at Imperial College London’s Centre for Transport Studies. They hope to develop tech that can integrate with Transport for London platforms.

5G, he thinks, will “open new capabilities for us.” The cane currently has ultrasound sensors that cause it to vibrate when it detects obstacles ahead, like streetlamps.

For future editions, he would like to use 5G connectivity to have a camera scanning ahead, with AI in the cloud identifying obstacles and reading signs in front of the user.

They have benefitted from help from Microsoft UK’s AI for Good accelerator.

Mr Meriçliler says “we see WeWALK as a platform, and we want to invite others to be part,” including other startups that took part in Unbound’s Tech for Good challenge.

“I think it’s very eye opening and very exciting for us. We are listening to the presentations, and they are all winners, to us.”


Andiamo, tutto

The tech for good shortlist also had startups like Andiamo – a startup that turns clinical data into precision 3D printed wearables for disabled children.

These include splints and braces for children with cerebral palsy, called orthoses, which stretch their tightened muscles and helps hold their bodies in the right posture.

3D printed braces can be 65% lighter than traditional ones.

And 3D scanning is quick, compared with making plaster of Paris moulds that can take an hour and be agonising for the patient.

Naveed Parvez and his wife Samiya began the startup, which they named after their son Diamo, who had cerebral palsy and died in 2012.

Going to a 3D printing conference afterwards, he “had a lightbulb moment” about how to make life a little better for others with the illness, he says.

3D printing should be able to reduce the waiting time for orthoses from six months to 48 hours, says Mr Parvez.

When Andiamo won the WeWork Creator Awards in September 2017, the startup had only £280 in its account.

Now it’s going from strength to strength. The NHS started covering Andiamo orthoses last autumn.

And this July, Andiamo, Imperial College, and Sri Lanka’s Moratuwa University won £80,000 in funding to start 3D printing spinal orthoses in Sri Lanka.

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Picture credit: StepLadder

House it going?

Other Unbound tech startups, like Lucy Mullins’s StepLadder, are getting millennials on the housing ladder.

Finding your way into homeownership isn’t growing especially easier, wherever you look.

In Britain, a young adult on middle income has half the chance today of buying a home as 20 years ago, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In the US, the percentage of people under 35 owning homes has dipped too: 40% of people in 1999, but 5% fewer today.

In Ireland in 1988, an average second hand house would’ve set you back €39,892. Today, it’s €254,000. Even considering inflation, this more than a threefold increase.

So Ms Mullins and her cofounder Matthew Addison decided to look overseas for ideas.

In South America, there are collaborative finance models called consocios, she says.


Peer to peer lending groups, where each month, everyone pays in the same set amount of money, and one member gets awarded the total.

This happens each month until every member is awarded the full amount.

When you apply it to saving for a deposit, the average person gets their deposit 45% faster this way, says Ms Mullins.

If you’re the unlucky last, you get your deposit no slower than you would otherwise.

And there are groups just like these around the world.

India has Chit Funds, Nigeria has Ajos, and the Caribbean has Pardners.

It’s not an entirely new idea in countries like the UK, either.

In 18th century Britain, there were clubs where every member contributed a small amount to a common pot: clock clubs, breeches clubs, watch clubs, and rent clubs.

StepLadder works on a similar peer to peer principle to early building societies, says Mr Addison.

Each circle has a savings advisor, who acts like an old-fashioned bank manager, offering encouragement and tips about savings.

And running the circles online, with an algorithm picking the winners each month, means StepLadder can reach more people.

Ms Mullins won the Future of Finance and Female Founders prizes at Unbound London.

She says she is “over the moon” to win, and “it’s great to be recognised for what we are doing.”

Fifteen years ago, Google took “Don’t be evil” as a motto.

WeWALK, Andiamo, and StepLadder are going a step beyond.

And showing tech startups can, in fact, do a world of good.

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