Interview with Suman Kanuganti, Co-Founder and CEO of Aira

Larry boards the bus using his white cane. With the help of her seeing-eye dog, Jane crosses the busy street. John, who is now a grandpa who has severely limited vision stays at home most of the time. Robert works in a office building and has a sighted person work with him to help with tasks that require eyesight. These are everyday occurrences in the United States and throughout the world today.

There are an estimated 20 million blind and low-vision people in the United States alone, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. What if there were a better way to help the blind?

Aira (pronounced Eye-Ruh) is using a combination of Google Glass type technology, location services, tie-in with other internet services and websites, along with a staff of certified agents throughout the country, is helping blind and visually impaired people to have better accessibility and more confidence. Aira’s vision is to goal is to develop leading technology and services that help remove the remaining barriers for the visually impaired, expanding their possibilities to live with greater confidence and independence. In a nutshell, Aira is improving the quality of life for the blind and visually impaired.

In this interview with Suman Kanuganti, the CEO of Aira, we discuss what Aira is doing to help remove barriers to the blind and improve efficiencies and quality of life to vision impaired individuals. Suman is an engineer by background, education and training. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri –Columbia, and the Rady School for Business at the University of California at San Diego. Suman worked at Catapillar, Wonderware, Qualcomm and Intuit before joining Aira. To get the company started, Aira joined the EvoNexus incubator.

Suman co-founded Aira in 2014. Aira is focused on developing transformative remote assistive technology and services that bring greater mobility, independence and self-confidence to blind and visually impaired individuals.

Patrick:     This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion with the Real Deal…What Matters. I’m here today with Suman Kanuganti who is the CEO and co-founder of Aira. It’s an interesting technology company in San Diego. Suman is an engineer by background, education and training. He also has a graduate degree in business.

He got his undergrad from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He’s a graduate of the Rady School of Business from the University of California, San Diego. Suman worked at Caterpillar, the big industrial equipment company. He worked for WonderWave, Qualcomm and Intuit before forming Aira.

Aira was founded in 2014 and is focused on developing transformative remote assistive technologies and services, enabling technology that brings together mobility, independence and self-confidence to the blind and visually impaired community of individuals. This is fascinating. I’m in San Diego and Aira was incubated at EvoNexus, where I’m an advisor and former board member. I was aware of the company early on. I thought it was really cool. I was always curious about how the business model would evolve.

Welcome, Suman. Where did you come up with the idea for Aira? How did that evolve?

Suman:      This was back in early 2014 when the smart glasses came out in the industry.

Patrick:     These are things like Google Glass?

Suman:      Yes, specifically Google Glass. I was a Google Glass explorer back then, so I got one. My co-founder got one. It was an idea of what a camera that is located right in front of your eye would do. It could enhance some of the things that you’re seeing or it could provide information for the person who may not be able to see. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine named Matt lives in Denver, Colorado. We pitched the idea to him. We put together simple prototypes.

Patrick:     He is blind?

Suman:      He is a blind person. At the age of 33, he lost his sight. He is legally blind. He is a father with two lovely daughters. He’s a nice guy. He’s a funny guy. We used to talk quite a bit on the phone. We said, “Let’s do a Google Hangout using the Glass instead of talking on the phone.” I am able to see what he would see. I started describing things.

There was this moment of, it’s not just about holding up a phone and looking around on FaceTime. You are seeing whatever I can see. As he moves around, I am able to describe things around him. It is a much more intuitive way of gathering information. We see this from the point of view of the camera glasses. That was the initiation of the idea.

Patrick:     Did you take it from there and develop a prototype or a minimum viable product? Where did you go from, “This is cool?”

Suman:      It’s exactly as you said. We put together a prototype. I called a couple of my friends, engineers who are in the company now, to put together a quick prototype. It was as simple as streaming from the glass. Then we had an LCD screen, real time streaming from the glass, with two to three seconds of latency at that time. Then we did some experiments at home, at his house and also walked outside. That was pretty cool.

Everyone was describing things in his home. There was a photo of him on his refrigerator. He looked so young. He said, “You know what? I need to change that photo.” From there, I was finishing up my MBA at Rady School of Management, UCSD. I had two credits left. I chose this idea and worked with a professor to come up with a business plan.

That’s when I got an opportunity to double click on the market. What is the competition out there? How do people who are blind or have low vision gather information that is otherwise acquired visually? What are the ways or techniques that they use to get around?

Patrick:     What did you learn from that experience in terms of, not only sizing the market, but understanding the limitations of current solutions?

Suman:      Fundamentally, there is something called the orientation and mobility scale. It’s about training on how you perceive your world around you, the environment around you, without seeing. Most of the community goes through this training for navigating places without seeing with the aid of a white cane or guide dog.

You may have seen people with a white cane or guide dog. The dog is specifically trained to navigate. When you use a white cane, there are specific techniques on how you would perceive the information about your surroundings. It’s very similar to how you would look at things and go around it.

Technology is great and has come far. For example, interactive digital information. They use something called voiceover on the phone. It exists for everyone. I use voiceover quite a bit because now I can see information without having to look at visual screens. For people who want to try this, it’s a beautiful technology, not just for the blind and low vision.

If you think about the tools that are out there for the blind, we have the white cane and the guide dog. There are a lot of apps. There is an app to identify colors. There is an app to recognize text. There is an app to identify dollar bills. There is an app to identify objects. But there isn’t a comprehensive solution for someone to get up and go, without having to think about the other information that they’re missing.

Patrick:     Is that the biggest problem within the blind market? Is it the limitation of mobility? You’re confined to your house or a space. If you do get out, you have to go specific ways. If there is any change in the outside environment, that could be a big problem.

Suman:      Yes. It comes down to the scope of the environment. For example, you could get trained for navigating in a scoped environment. Let’s say we’re talking about your office campus. I would know anything and everything that happens in the office campus. Now I move from my office campus and go on a vacation to Hawaii. This is a new environment. There is environmental information. There is visual information. You would need to gather this in order to get around. Navigating is not necessarily the problem. It’s about the information that otherwise you are missing.

Patrick:     I was having lunch with my fiancée Amanda in downtown Delmar today. We were crossing the street. Some woman blew through the intersection, talking on her phone. Luckily, I can see. If I couldn’t see, I’d probably be dead right now. You can compensate for some of those things with the white cane and the dog, but this provides a greater sense of awareness, except for the latency issue. Have you gotten the latency down?

Suman:      Yes. Right now, we are talking about less than 120 milliseconds.

Patrick:     That’s fantastic. Before the interview, we were talking about the size of the market. Can you give the viewers a bit of insight around that? Most people don’t have a sense of how big or small the blindness market is.

Suman:      To your point, sometimes I feel that’s an advantage. To give you a big picture view, in the entire world, there are 280 million people who are blind or vision impaired. That’s almost 3% of the entire population. Here is an even bigger picture. The total disability market in the world is 1.2 billion people. That’s the size of China.

Specifically, we are targeting about 300 million people out of 1.2 billion people. Within the United States, the number of legally blind people is 22 million. It’s still huge. There is a wide spectrum of blindness. It starts from 2200, which is legally blind, all the way to totally blind. There are solutions specifically targeted for people with Stargardt Disease.

Patrick:     What is that?

Suman:      For example, there is this amazing technology called eSight. They use techniques with not just zooming, but…

Patrick:     What is Stargardt Disease?

Suman:      It is one of the macular generation conditions. It’s a degenerative disease. You lose your vision over time.

Patrick:     Does it get narrower and narrower?

Suman:      No, this is different. That is Retinitis Pigmetosa.

Patrick:     There are degenerative things that can happen, an accident or being born blind.

Suman:      Yes. If you think about market segmentation, like blind veterans, most of them, it is instant. Most of them lose sight because of an event. There are 175,000 blind veterans. That’s just within the veteran population. Most of the low vision to legally blind people are the people who lose vision at a later point in their life. As they get older, there are specific conditions that tax them. There are blind people who are born blind or lose their sight at one or two years old. It’s a big market.

Patrick:     In terms of quantifying it from a dollar standpoint, have you looked at that? How much money is spent on this problem either in the portion of the market that you’re going after now or more broadly?

Suman:      Within the United States, on a per year basis, there is a total of $146 billion spent.

Patrick:     This is $146 billion spent annually on assisting blind and legally blind people.

Suman:      I will break it down. Half of it is the research dollars being spent on finding a cure for a disease. That has nothing to do with technology. It is all about research and medical studies to find a cure for eye diseases.

Patrick:     That’s still about $70 billion. That’s a pretty big number.

Suman:      You can put aside $48 billion, which is economic loss. That means that there is 70% unemployment within the blind and low vision community. Again, this is because of lack of vision information. Then there is $22 billion spent annually towards providing sighted assistance in various different capacities. It could be an individual helping a sighted person.

It could be an elderly person who is getting sighted help as part of Medicare or Medicaid. It could be an assistant that an employer hires to help a blind employee to do their job more effectively. If you combine all of these numbers it comes to $22 billion.

We don’t have to incur the $22 billion as loss on a yearly basis. Now that you have the ability to get that sighted assistance whenever you want, on demand, without having to staff a sighted person to help, there is obvious economy subscale that you are getting. You have this sighted assistance distributed throughout the United States.

Patrick:     There is efficiency improvement because you have idle capacity all over the place. If you can more effectively use the available capacity, there are huge efficiency improvements.

Suman:      Yes. We call it sighted assistance or greater. Let’s say you are my sighted assistance. You can only see the environment in our view. For you to help me, let’s say I would like to get an Uber. Patrick, can you help me with that? You’ll probably pull up your phone and use your vision. The agents behind the scenes, besides the visual information, they have a lot of environmental information, map information, layout, integrations into Uber, Amazon, Lyft and so forth.

Patrick:     Talk to me about the product. You have the thing that sits on the person’s face. Then you have this behind the scenes blindness concierge market that you provide. It’s way more than that because it breaks it down to a more granular level than, “Get me a restaurant reservation.” Talk to me about that in layman’s terms when it comes to the product.

Suman:      We call it a mission control sight dashboard. On the mission control dashboard, it’s an app that sits on your desktop.

Patrick:     This is for the person that’s providing the assistance?

Suman:      We call them Agents. This is a sighted person sitting in front of the computer. They log into this magical mission control style dashboard.

Patrick:     Your wife was the first agent?

Suman:      My wife was the first agent. Larry Bock (Lawrence A. “Larry” Bock was an legally blind person and American entrepreneur who has aided in starting or financing 50 early-stage growth companies, with a combined market value of more than $70 billion. His firm invested in Aira, and he served on their board until his death on July 6, 2016) asked for the demo. My wife was the agent for that. We hadn’t even incorporated the company back then. He wanted a demo at in a Soup Plantation. We went to a Soup Plantation and we prepared everything. Once we were there, he said, “You know what? We are not going to Soup Plantation. We are going to a restaurant opposite there.” He was very funny.

She was the first person who talked to him and started to describe things in front of him much more naturally. He was hooked. He said, “This is not what I was anticipating.”

Going back to the dashboard, there are a good number of agents in the US. I’m sure there are calls going on right now. The user calls in. You accept the call. It’s as simple as that. When you accept the call, you will see the live video feed, less than 120 milliseconds, from the first-person point of view camera. The glass is streaming sensory information. It’s also streaming their location.

Patrick:     There is GPS capability built into the technology?

Suman:      Yes. You can imagine the sophistication. You walk into a restaurant and we pull the menu information automatically. That way, we don’t have to look it up. We have integration into public transportation services. If a user would like to get from Point A to Point B, there is information about navigating them. Also, we would have all the transportation options to get there.

Patrick:     Do you have other location-based things where GPS doesn’t work, like if you’re in a subway?

Suman:      For every user, they create a profile. They do have mechanisms ahead of time to tell us where they are headed. There is a calendar integration. Our agent also has built-in profile mechanisms. Based on the location, we associate certain data for that particular location. Public transportation is one map layout. A grocery store is another.

You can go on and on with many different kinds of data augmentation on the dashboard based on location and context. Let’s say I get something from Ikea. You can look at the instructions online. You would rather go to YouTube video and look at it rather than describe it. An agent doesn’t have the restriction to just use the video feed coming from the glass.

Patrick:     That alone is a massive market, even for people who can see.

Suman:      Finally, there are things such as Uber. We are integrated into Uber. Agents can push a button and request an Uber on a user’s behalf. They know the color of the car, the license plate of the car, the person’s name and face. When the car arrives for the blind person, it’s as simple as opening the door and sitting down. It’s a smooth experience. It’s amazing.

Patrick:     I know that you have revenue. You’re still private so you probably don’t disclose it. You’ve raised a decent amount of venture capital money. You’ve recently closed a Series B at $12 million. How far does that take you? Do you see a clear path to profitability? Where are you on the business side?

Suman:      It’s one of those businesses where it doesn’t feel so obvious where the money is, which is an unfair advantage. That is something we can invest in heavily. We want to find out how to make this affordable and make it available to the millions and millions of blind people out there. If you think about it, the unit economics as of today are still costly.

Patrick:     You don’t have the economy as a scale or economy as a scope yet.

Suman:      Yes, exactly. We do have multiple revenue streams or channels. It’s just not in a direct-to-consumer model. It’s a subscription model. We do have channels into the corporate sector as well as the public sector. The whole premise is that they payer could be multiple different people although the person who is ultimately receiving the services, or the value, is a blind or low vision person.

To put that into perspective, if you look at this technology, it’s innovative and augmenting a person’s environment. It uses smart glasses as an augmented reality application. It’s not in a constrained environment. It’s not in a healthcare setting or construction setting. It is out there in the world. That’s one of the reasons why our partnership with AT&T plays a big role. There are a lot of other market opportunities as well for our technology to play a big role.

Patrick:     It’s even bigger than the market size that you described. That initial focus of the blindness market and productivity improvement in the United States is the beachhead market opportunity. But then you can fan it out to other opportunities over time.

Suman:      That’s right. The blind and low vision market is a big market. Beyond that, there are additional markets that we can go after.

Patrick:     Let’s shift gears and talk about you. You’re a first-time CEO. You have a few years of experience doing this now. You’ve raised a lot of money and made a lot of progress. For the entrepreneurial audience, give us one or two key insights about starting and building companies.

Suman:      That is a tricky question. I don’t consider myself an expert. Just be open. There is a lot more to learn than what you already know now. I’m sitting here. We are having a conversation. I don’t consider myself an expert because I only know so much. I have yet to experience things.

If I were talking to a friend, I would say to keep an open mind. Learning will not stop. I think it is a continuous process. It’s not, “I am an entrepreneur. Now I know everything.” No. When you go to Series A, there is new learning. When you to go Series B, there is something else. I’m sure something else is waiting when we go to Series C.

Patrick:     It’s great advice. I agree. You should always be learning. You have the stuff that you know. You have the stuff you don’t know. Then you have the stuff that you don’t even know you don’t know. Having mentors and peer group interaction, keeping an open mind are all critically important. You need to have the thirst for learning.

Every successful entrepreneur that I’ve dealt with has that openness and receptivity to continue to learn. This has been awesome. I am here with Suman Kanuganti from Aira. They provide this amazing capability to improve the lives of blind people. It’s been terrific to have you on the show. Thanks a lot, Suman.

Suman:      Thank you.

This is Patrick Henry, CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters.