Every tech venture has vision at its core – and for Bonocle, a startup which its creators hope can revolutionize reading for the visually-impaired, that’s the case in more ways than one.
Stemming from an idea that emerged through an unfortunate twist of fate for one of its team members, advanced through Qatar Science & Technology Park’s (QSTP’s) XLR8 program, and now being incubated at QSTP, it’s a handheld device using next-generation technology to allow its users to translate digital content into Braille in a smoother and cheaper way than ever before.
Designed to be an easily-affordable, pocket-sized gateway to reading for those with sight problems, the device will scan online books, websites, and social media platforms, with the ultra-responsive Braille cells at its tip providing the user with instant translation at their own pace. Once its digital functions are perfected, the Bonocle team – CEO Abdelrazek Aly, CFO Ramy Abdulzaher, CMO Mahmoud Eltouny, and CTO Kariem Fahmi – plan to enhance it so that it can read printed text.
Their startup aims to fill a gap in the market that first came to their attention when, while studying at Qatar University, Abdelrazek was involved in a car accident that left him with a broken right-hand. While continuing his studies in a university center catering for students with disabilities and injuries, he came into contact with visually-impaired people – and the challenges they face.
“They often struggled to read text or use computer software, and the solutions available to them did not seem to be helping them as much as they should, which created added pressure for them,” he explains. “So we decided this was a problem that we would look to solve.”
The quartet have known each other since primary school, with their respective skills encompassing computer science and mechanical and electrical engineering. They combined these to initially develop a Kindle-style reading device, and, when that proved not to be cost-effective, they changed course.
“People wanted to be able to run their finger across a screen, so we designed a glove that would give a Braille reading,” says Abdelrazek. “We gained some publicity from this and were accepted into the QSTP XLR8 program to develop this technology to the prototype stage.
“When we tested it, in Qatar and the US, people loved the idea, but were not so comfortable with wearing a glove. That was when we hit upon the idea of making it a handheld device, using the same principles, and capable of being a universal reading aid for all visually-impaired people.”
Bonocle may use the latest technology and an intricate set of components, but Ramy insists its roots are in a very simple idea. “There were real issues associated with other options on the market, including their cost – putting them beyond the budget of many – and the technology they use,” he says. “To us, they were impractical, and we wanted to provide a solution.
“People have been really impressed with what we have developed – many of them already want it to be on the market! That’s encouraging, but as good as Bonocle already is, it still isn’t what we imagine it to be. We are constantly looking to improve and optimize it. It’s like our first child.
“We’ll only commercialize a device that meets all the needs and expectations of visually-impaired people. That drives us to keep improving it.”
The team already have a provisional patent and have applied for a non-provisional US patent, while seeking seed funding for product development, including enhancing the device’s ergonomic functions and making it even more portable, after which they will move to manufacturing. They have liaised with institutions in Qatar and the US that help visually-impaired people, and with the New York Public Library, with a view to integrating the device into their operation.
“We’ve learned so much from this journey,” says Abdelrazek. “But the most important thing we’ve learned is how visually-impaired people think, live, read, and act. The feedback we get from them is quite emotional – some of those who tested the device hugged us, saying they’ve been waiting for something like this.
“It makes us realize we are developing something that people really need. And that drives us.”
Their startup has also been driven forward through being incubated at QSTP. “It enables us to reach out to potential investors and high-level companies, and have direct contact with them,” says Ramy. “It gives us much more visibility, and scope for marketing and building connections. So many more people know about us through being at QSTP. And our success will be QSTP’s success too.
“We keep thinking about the day when we will release Bonocle to the market, and everyone who uses it will know where it was made. We want people to know this started in Qatar, was supported by Qatar, and has been created in Qatar.”
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Abdelrazek Aly says: “Realize it’s going to be hard and that you will have moments when you fail, then learn from those moments.”
Ramy Abdulzaher says: “Don’t give up, even when it seems easy to do that. And always be in contact with your customers. They are why you are doing this, so do it for them, not just for you.”