When she was a graduate student in her native Bulgaria about five years ago, Kristina Tsvetanova was once asked to help a blind friend sign up online for a class. Understanding why he could not do so opened her eyes to the lag in technological innovation to benefit blind and visually impaired people.
“The shock that my friend couldn’t perform this simple task stayed with me,” Ms. Tsvetanova said in an interview.
Ms. Tsvetanova, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial management and a master’s in engineering, knew that she had stumbled onto an untapped opportunity.
“I realized that there was a gap in the market and a business opportunity in developing technology to provide access to content and services for the blind,” she said. “I am a second-generation entrepreneur, my father taught me to take risks.”
In 2014, Ms. Tsvetanova, who turned 30 last month, moved to Vienna to take advantage of its more sophisticated business culture, where she co-founded the start-up Blitab Technology (a play on the words blind and tablet). She is also the company’s chief executive and has since relocated to San Francisco for proximity to Silicon Valley investors. Later this fall, she plans to introduce Blitab’s debut product, a portable tablet (also called Blitab) designed for blind and visually impaired people.
“Blitab will soon be available for pre-order on our website,” Ms. Tsvetanova said. “We plan to ship by the end of the year.”
Design-wise, Blitab looks like any other tablet-style device. It is slightly thicker than an iPad, but with two separate display fields. On the tablet’s bottom half, a touch screen allows users to select an application or web browse using their voice.
On the top half, the tablet’s glass is perforated into a grid with holes, which allow Blitab’s liquid-based technology to create tactile relief — or “tixels” — that outputs content in the Braille alphabet — the touch-reading system that has been the literacy tool for blind people since 1824. The “smart” liquid alters the surface of the tablet to convert text, maps and graphics into Braille, by creating a rising sensation under the user’s fingertips.
“Blitab can translate any type of content into Braille using our cloud-based software and displays one page of content at a time,” Ms. Tsvetanova said.
Priced at around $500, Blitab could be the improved and affordable alternative to existing portable Braille readers that blind people have long desired.
“With this tool, the blind can surf the net, connect with friends and download books, like everyone else,” she said.
The impact of Blitab on the lives of visually impaired people is potentially enormous.
In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that there were 253 million people living with vision impairment across the globe, including 36 million blind people and 217 million with moderate to severe vision impairment. Those numbers are expected to triple by 2050.
Existing keyboards for the blind mostly operate via piezoelectric technology, which uses pressure to generate electricity, allowing them to function as a Braille reader. The keyboards are often bulky, limited in functionality and sell for thousands of dollars. There are also portable Braille readers, which have been around for two decades, but typically offer only single-line displays.
“Can you imagine reading Harry Potter one line at a time?” Ms. Tsvetanova said.
“Only 1 percent of published books is available in Braille,” she said. “People with sight loss cannot actually read most books, they can only listen to them being read.”
Braille illiteracy contributes to high unemployment rates for blind and visually impaired people, estimated to be 75 percent in Europe (according to the European Blind Union) and 70 percent in the United States, according to Cornell University’s Disability Statistics. These numbers are even higher on a global scale.
Since Blitab’s founding, Ms. Tsvetanova has been recognized for its potential to change the lives of people with sight loss. She won the Rising Innovator award in 2017 from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and was recognized in 2017 by MIT Technology Review’s Spanish edition as one of its European Innovators Under 35. Last year, Blitab was among 56 finalists selected from 1,401 entries in the Index: Design to Improve Life, a design competition based in Denmark, which awards about 500,000 euros (about $580,000) in total prize money.
“This tablet will be especially impactful for the life progress of young blind persons,” said Mette Laursen, a former board member of the Index competition.
“Just imagine the first time you used an iPad and the possibilities it opened for you,” Ms. Laursen said. “Blitab can do the same for the blind.”
Ms. Laursen was also a member of the jury of the 2018 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual international business plan competition funded by the luxury jeweler that rewards innovative projects by women entrepreneurs. At its awards ceremony in April in Singapore, Ms. Tsvetanova was the top prize winner, or “laureate,” from Europe.
“Cartier’s prize is a springboard to help our laureates secure investment from banks and investors who rely on our due diligence and our assessment that these businesses are viable,” said Cyrille Vigneron, president and chief executive of Cartier.
While she awaits closing on a new round of financing this month, Ms. Tsvetanova is negotiating with a number of American service providers in the telecom and banking sectors to integrate Blitab into their businesses.
“With our technology, a visually impaired employee can review a document unassisted, and a blind client can read a contract before signing it,” Ms. Tsvetanova said.
“Blitab means literacy,” she said. “Reading it yourself is a big step toward independence.”
Originally published: New York Times by Nazanin Lakarani on 10/03/2018