Wearable Tech For The Visually Impaired
Sunu creates “wearable tech” for the visually impaired.
Its initial device is a “smart” band that uses sonar obstacle detection and GPS navigation to enhance independence for the blind.
This company is backed by Y Combinator, a prominent startup accelerator, and has generated nearly $1 million in revenue since 2017.
Sunu is targeting a huge market. 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired — this includes 35 million blind people and those with low vision.
For these people, navigation and mobility are a daily challenge. The constant loss of orientation, the inability to protect their bodies against obstacles, and missing important cues for navigation results in frequent accidents, frustration, and anxiety.
Visually impaired people have access to aids like white canes and guide dogs. But these resources can’t detect upper-body obstacles like branches and sign posts (90% of these collisions impact a person’s upper body). Furthermore, these aids don’t provide users with essential navigation information.
Training with these aids takes years. And many who are experiencing a decline in vision refuse to use them due to social stigmas.
To help combat these problems, companies are developing technology-based navigation aids. By 2024, the global assistive technologies market is expected to reach $31 billion.
Sunu is in position to disrupt this market. It’s created the only smart band that informs the user of obstacles using real-time haptic feedback, while providing meaningful location and navigation information through voice feedback.
Here’s how it works:
The wrist-worn band uses sonar, or echolocation technology, to detect objects up to 16 feet away. It does this by emitting ultrasonic sound waves which travel through space and bounce back from objects they encounter.
The returning sound waves are decoded by the Sunu Band to extract important information about the object. This includes its proximity, hardness, and size.
Once decoded, haptic feedback vibrations communicate this information to the user in real-time. Users also have the option to receive voice feedback.
Complementing the band is Sunu’s mobile app. When the band is connected to the app, users can access location information like nearby places, street names, and intersections. They can also use the app’s Augmented Reality feature, which enables users to simply point their hand in any direction, and receive a list of places nearby. This feature is called “Place Finder.”
While the band functions as a standalone device, it can be used to access several features available on a phone. For example, it can tell users the time, set alarms, track their activity, and find their phone. Users can access all Sunu app features directly from the band, without needing to take their phone out of their pocket while on the go.
The Sunu Band was designed to complement existing aids like canes and guide dogs. That’s because this band detects obstacles from the knee level up to the head, where existing aids can’t. Sunu’s band reduces accidents by 90%, and the device is easy to learn to use. It’s also discreet, helpful for those who are worried about being noticed with a walking aid.
Sunu began developing its band in 2014. That year, the company won the “Gold Award” at MassChallenge, the largest small business and startup competition in the world. It also received recognition from the MIT Technology Review.
In 2017, Sunu launched its product into the market.
Between 2017 and mid-2018, the company achieved $180,000 in sales from one team member. Then, the company hired a pair of sales reps and achieved a nearly 400% increase in sales over the next 12 months.
Sunu reinvested its early revenues into the company, enabling it to minimize production costs, optimize the quality of the device, and secure a supply chain and manufacturing partners — a crucial step for tech- and hardware-based companies.
Today, the company has 5,000 users in 50 countries. It also has global distribution and re-sale partners in 28 countries. Key distribution partners include Vision Australia, New England Eye Institute (in the U.S.), and Sight & Sound (in the UK).
Sunu’s investors now include Toushka Capital and Avalancha Ventures, and the company has been awarded patents protecting the band’s ergonomic design and utility model for its sonar application.
In 2019, the company won the AARP Innovation Labs Grand Challenge. Receiving this award enables the company to partner with the leading organization that’s addressing the aging and elderly markets in the U.S.
Most recently, Sunu has set up its supply chain in Guadalajara, Mexico, where most of its team is based. Many hardware-based companies have similar supply chains operating in this area, including industry leaders Jabil (NYSE: JBL), Flextronics (Nasdaq: FLEX), and Sanmina (Nasdaq: SANM).
The Sunu Band retails for $299, and each unit costs the company $60 to manufacture. Sunu spends between $30 and $90 to acquire each customer, resulting in an average profit ranging between $149 and $209.
Sales channels include B2C (through Sunu’s online store and at various expos); B2B (through distributors, organizations, rehab centers, and vision clinics); and Subsidies (government and medical programs). In the future, the company may offer a subscription service to its mobile app, creating an additional source of revenue.
Moving forward, Sunu will invest in opening more sales channels, including subsidies from the government and Amazon. It will also continue development on three future products, including:
• Blind Toolbox App: This navigation app will feature crowdsourcing capabilities to enable users to report problems with routes and construction. Users will also be able to earn points and badges for doing so, bringing a “gamification” aspect to navigation. This app is set to be released in 2020.
• Sunu Band X: This updated device will have enhanced sonar and haptics, premium hardware, and water resistance. This device is scheduled for launch in 2020.
• Sunu Nek: This device will rest around a user’s neck. A voice-driven user interface, vision assistance, and 360-degree haptics will enable users to walk around with even more confidence and ease. This product is scheduled to be released in 2021.
Marco has 10 years of hardware design and manufacturing experience.
Prior to starting Sunu, he was an electronic designer for Cinvestav, a scientific research institution based in Mexico City affiliated with the National Polytechnic Institute. While there, he was involved in the electronic and user interface design of a consumer product for gas monitoring, and helped build and test a prototype of the device.
Before that, he worked for Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) as a software developer and mechatronic designer.
Marco earned a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from the Monterrey Institute of Technology.
Dr. Albertorio is a legally blind technologist and serial entrepreneur.
He began his career as a research technologist at The National Institutes of Health, then spent five years as a Physics research associate at Harvard University.
From there, he co-founded Libboo, a marketing and reader analytics platform helping authors publish their works. Three years later, he was invited to become a member of the Board of Directors at Cambridge Hackspace, a non-profit organization providing workspace and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Dr. Albertorio earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Texas A&M, and a Postdoctoral degree in Physics from Harvard.
Adrian has an extensive background in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry.
Prior to his time with Sunu, he was a business operations manager and program project manager for Grupo Horizonte, a real estate company based in Mexico. Before that, he spent a year as an associate professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology.
Notably, he spent six years with Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), serving as a startup and project manager and technical department manager.
Adrian earned a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, focusing on automation engineering, from the Monterrey Institute of Technology.
Victor has been with Sunu since its inception.
He has a background as a full-stack software engineer, focusing on companies in the consumer electronics, mobile app development, and server administration markets.
His skillset includes Artificial Intelligence, development operations, and network design.
He studied at the University of Guadalajara.
An early-stage VC fund investing in technology-based companies.
A Mexico-based private investment fund focused on social impact organizations.
Seed-stage accelerator whose alumni include Scribd, Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox and Stripe