For-good founders open to big tech support

Two fast-rising UK tech-for-good ventures – Open Bionics and GiveVision – took to the stage in London last week to explain their technology and their plans for growth. The growth of each has been aided by funding from Nominet Trust. Julian Blake reports.

Samantha PayneTech-for-good startups should not rule out support from big tech businesses if it helps get their products into the hands of more of the people who need them, the founders of two growing health tech startups said last week.

Sammy Payne, co-founder of 3D printed robotics venture Open Bionics, and Stan Karpenko, chief executive of GiveVision, innovators for the visually impaired, agreed that the larger technology firms could help the startups to progress their missions.

The two were speaking during a showcase for Nominet Trust-backed social technology, at DigitalAgenda’s Impact Awards at the Barbican Centre in London.

Open Bionics and GiveVision are both creating the kinds of life-changing products that the Impact Awards were created to celebrate. Impact Awards headline sponsor Nominet Trust has supported each company with £50,000 in social tech seed funding.

Bristol-founded Open Bionics deploys 3D body scanning and printing technology to create bionic hands for amputees that are advanced, lightweight and low cost. Payne co-founded the company with Joel Gibbard in 2014, driven by a desire to help take away the stigma and change the perception of prosthetics.

Payne confirmed that Open Bionics had just won a $1m UAE AI and robotics award for good prize. This, she said, would allow it to start hiring “engineers who are driven to make really good hardware for a really good purpose.”

The company secured $120,000 in support from Intel in 2015, as well as $20,000 in seed funding from taking part in the LA-based Disney Accelerator in 2015. That connection helped the company to create Disney-superhero-themed bionic arms that would appeal to children.

Payne said the company’s for-good approach made it open source. “We share all of our developments online for free,” she said. “One of our biggest missions is to make this technology available for everyone, everywhere. So it wouldn’t really be a problem if someone took our tech. We’d probably encourage it.”

“One of the biggest challenges we face as a startup – especially a medical technology startup – is that many investors believe medtech is scary and risky.”

“We have had a lot of help and we’re really grateful for that,” said Payne. “We’re Nominet Trust-backed and the social tech award enabled us to hire some engineers and do our first feasibility study.”

GiveVision’s smart glasses increase the independence and mobility of blind and visually impaired people by converting visual information into audio cues.

Following Nominet Trust support, and £60,000 from Wayra, last year GiveVision secured £250,000 seed funding from Ascension Ventures, Finance Birmingham and Millhouse Capital to help it develop its product.

stankarpenkoKarpenko said prototypes of the smart glasses product – powered by software that takes a real-time video feed that beams to parts of the eye that are still functioning – were now being shipped. “The very exciting part is we have managed to shrink the VR bulky set with a smartphone to something small. People now can take this to the streets without being afraid to look like a weirdo.”

“We believe that by 2025 a sight prosthetic should be there for anyone who is visually impaired with no cure for their condition. It is almost like solving sight loss in the next seven to eight years. It’s going to be as ubiquitous as a hearing aid is today.

Karpenko said he would welcome “anyone who would like to be part of the journey” to help it solve sight loss through its technology. “We are always looking for clinical champions, policy influencers as well as organisations that want to be part of it as funders,” he said. “To address sight loss in less than a decade, we would welcome you on board.”

Opening the Barbican showcase, Nominet Trust chair Natalie Campbell said: “Through our grant funding and partnerships we have the privilege to support social entrepreneurs who see the potential of tech to make a significant difference. We’re proud to champion the pioneers using digital tech to enable positive social change.”