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California Teenager Earns Funding for His Low-Cost Braille Printer for Blind People

November 10, 2014
Source: Washington Post, Reuters

Shubham Banerjee is an eighth-grade businessman who found a way to slash the cost of Braille printers, which could help tens of thousands of blind people.

Last December, seventh-grader Shubham Banerjee asked his parents how blind people read.

A tech professional who works in California’s Silicon Valley, dad Neil Banerjee told his son to “Google it.”

So Shubham did, and with a few Internet searches he learned about Braille, the raised-dot writing system used by the blind, and Braille printers, which, to the 12-year-old’s shock, cost thousands of dollars.

One school science fair victory, a few national awards, $35,000 of his parents’ savings and a visit to the White House later, Shubham is the founder of Palo Alto, California, business Braigo Labs, which aims to become the first source of low-cost, compact Braille printers.

Intel Capital announced last week that it has invested in the teenager’s company, making Shubham the world’s youngest tech entrepreneur to receive venture-capital funding.

”It was curiosity,” explained Shubham, now 13 and an eighth-grader at Champion School in San Jose, California. “I’m always thinking up something. If you think it can be done, then it can probably be done.”

What started as a home-built Lego project for a science fair has morphed into a family-run start-up, with mom Malini Banerjee the president and chief executive and dad Neil Banerjee on the board of directors and also serving as Shubham’s chauffeur and chaperone to press events, interviews and business meetings. The money from Intel will allow the Santa Clara, California, family to hire engineers and product designers, allowing Shubham to return his focus to school.

“It’s a classic Silicon Valley story, isn’t it?” said Neil Banerjee, who works as director of software operations for Intel. “Everyone else started in a garage, but [Shubham] started at the kitchen table.”

The investment also earns Shubham a place in history. He is two years younger than British entrepreneur Nick D’Aloisio, who was previously the world’s youngest tech entrepreneur with venture-capital backing when he received an investment for his start-up Summly, a news-reading app, in 2011, according to business groups and media organizations that track venture investments. Yahoo later bought Summly for a reported $30 million.

Braigo includes software that Shubham created using Intel’s new Edison chip — an inexpensive development platform to power wearable devices and other gadgets built by hobbyists — and a printer. Shubham published the code for the software on the Web so other developers can use it, but the family has a patent pending for the printer. Intel engineers, including his dad, helped Shubham build the prototype.

Organizations for the visually impaired welcome the prospect of an affordable Braille printer, which they say could give blind people better access to literature and news. The device also could improve Braille reading rates, which are about 8.5 percent among the 60,000 blind schoolchildren in the country, according to the American Printing House for the Blind.

Braille printers start at about $2,000 for personal use and go up to at least $10,000 for schools and businesses. Braigo plans to sell its printer for about $350.

“We had no idea that someone could reinvent a Braille printer and bring the cost down by an order of magnitude,” said Mike Bell, Intel vice president and general manager of the company’s New Devices Group. “We think this has big potential to help a lot of people.”

In five to 10 years, Shubham could be done with school, with Braigo perhaps a distant memory. But whether or not the company survives, the experience is almost certainly something his parents will long hold onto.

“He would stay up until 2 a.m., and I would be like, ‘Give it up, Shubham, just give it up,’ ” Malini Banerjee said. “He would keep building and breaking things, and I would get so discouraged, asking, ‘Why is he wasting his time?’ But, now I tell every mom, ‘Believe in your child.’ ”

Did you know?

In 1829, Louis Braille published a system of raised dots that blind people could use to read and write. The blind boy developed the code as a teenager.

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