Sensor-Tech, a Skolkovo Foundation resident and up and coming company, has two unique devices that are designed to assist the deaf and blind in tackling the daily issues associated with the disabilities. These are called “Robin” and “Charly.” Robin, a so-called “smart assistant,” utilizes artificial intelligence algorithms and built-in cameras that can identify objects, faces, obstacles and measure distance. Charly, a “smart microphone,” can identify speech up to two meters away, immediately transcribing it to devices such as phone screens, computer monitors, tablets and braille displays.
Sensor-Tech LLC was founded in 2019 and became a Skolkovo resident that same year; however, the Sensor-Tech lab goes back to 2016 when the Deaf-Blind Support Foundation created it. While Robin and Charly are the main products, the company laboratory is currently working on upgrades for them as well as researching and developing other technologies such as an app for people with autism called Albert, and a VR simulator that shows what people with various forms of impaired vision see.
We caught up with the company CEO, Denis Kuleshov, to find out more about where Sensor-Tech stands in terms of developing sales for its devices and how government recognition would be a major boost in that regard.
“At the moment, these devices are known in Russia as Robin, the assistive technology for blind people, and Charly, the device for deaf and deaf-blind people,” said Mr. Kuleshov. “When we finished our R&D projects, we thought about commercializing, which is why we created Sensor-Tech LLC. Our products are already on the market, but we need acceleration in order to expand in Russia and export our products to other countries.”
Mr. Kuleshov’s involvement in the Sensor-Tech lab project began when the Deaf-Blind Foundation reached out to him in 2016. As an engineer and researcher, he was and still is involved in multiple projects related to people with disabilities, is a co-founder of other non-profit organizations, and is a professor at Bauman University.
“We do a lot of research,’ he said. “We have grant projects, we develop hardware, software, we do research in genetics, and we organized the first operations in bionic vision implants in Russia.”
While the bionic vision technology originates from the United States, Sensor-Tech was the first in Russia to conduct research in this area. Alongside the research project in bionic vision, the Sensor-Tech lab began conducting research on other devices for blind and deaf people using funding from both the Deaf-Blind Support Foundation as well as the NTI (National Technology Initiative). The NTI is a long-term comprehensive program that aims to create conditions to ensure that Russian companies lead in new high-tech markets over the next two decades.
Robin and Charly were both developed from scratch by Sensor-Tech, and Mr. Kuleshov did not hesitate to highlight the uniqueness of the devices.
“Charly and Robin are absolutely unique. Robin is a combination of a hardware platform and our own software algorithms, all of which are made in Moscow. It is a great combination because if any other company wanted to copy it, not only would they need to copy our hardware, they would have to somehow copy all the algorithms. As for Charly, there are a few competitors but they are only competitors in part.”
The Robin device, which is for people with impaired vision or total blindness, utilizes built-in cameras, artificial intelligence, and can recognize up to 50 objects at a distance of ten meters, whether it be a bus, a car or a chair; it can also recognize faces and detect obstacles while assessing their distance The information is transmitted to the user via headphones and serves as a powerful accompaniment to the traditional white cane. It can also work for up to five hours without charging.
There are two upgrades for Robin that are in the R&D stage. The first is the second-generation of the existing Robin but with additional functions; the second is called Robin-Pro, which has a different form factor, has additional functions and will not only be suitable for the blind, but for low-vision users and the elderly.
“The basic idea is that the user can avoid a critical situation. Many elderly people are not very good at navigating and some have memory problems,” said Mr. Kulsehov.
The device boasts an SOS function that can notify relatives about the user’s location should they have an accident and has a pulse monitor to show the current status of an elderly user.
The Charly device is designed to help deaf and deaf-blind people communicate easily. Using four built-in smart microphones, it recognizes speech up to two meters away and displays it instantaneously in text form on a phone screen, tablet, computer monitor or a braille display. It speaks Russian and in test-mode it supports English and German; it can be used at home, in public places, for remote work and for remote study. Its “distance communication” special function facilitates distance learning and business meetings, allowing deaf participants to read every word of a lecture or meeting through a special link.
According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), the number of visually impaired people in the world amounts to 253 million, while the number of people suffering from total blindness amounts to 36 million. Meanwhile, over 5% of the world’s population – 466 million people – has disabling hearing loss and that figure is estimated to double by 2050, according to the WHO. These staggering figures highlight the need for assistive technologies for the blind and deaf. The Robin device is available for purchase on eBay; however, at $2500, the price is beyond the means of many potential users. Since a lot of countries, Russia included, have government sponsored assistive technology lists, Sensor-Tech’s target clients are mainly B2B and B2G, meaning insurance companies and government programs.
Prospects for Expansion
For now, Sensor-Tech has been selling its two devices solely in the Russian market and while current sales are not large, there is potential for significant growth should Charly and Robin make it onto the government assistive technologies list. According to Mr. Kuleshov, the government assistive technologies list accounts for approximately 95% of the market, with the remaining 5% going to retail, making assistive technology developers almost totally reliant on state support.
As mentioned, the price of a Robin device is very high ($2500) for the average customer; this is especially true in developing countries where the price of a white cane alone is beyond many people’s means.
“Regarding export development, we have started a campaign on eBay for Robin and are in the process of registering it on Amazon as well,” said Mr. Kuleshov. “The product supports English, German, and Russian; however, it can support any language within two to three weeks of localization. That is currently the main export project. Right now we can only really reach people who have their own money such as the wealthy or elderly people with pension funds.”
Sensor-Tech has organized promotional charity fundraising events to give Robin devices to blind children, and the company recently signed a contract with a UK foundation to give Robin smart assistants to fifteen kids suffering blindness.
The main benefit of getting Robin and Charly onto the government assistive technologies list in Russia, aside from a significant increase in sales, is that Sensor-Tech could then make a case with investors and with its international partners in Europe and the United States.
“We have a signed agreement in the US for our partner from California to represent us there and to help us develop business in the US market. That could be a trigger for our partners to go through the same procedure in other countries. However, if you want to sell your product to governments or insurance companies, you need to get through the certification procedure in most cases. That could take up to three years and is very costly,” said Mr. Kuleshov, referring to the European CE marker and FDA certification.
The EU and US certification processes are both challenging for a small company, especially where costs are concerned, but are necessary in order to break into those markets and generate investor confidence. Until the product gains government recognition and certification, investors do not see the potential “to take the high road in terms of expanding sales,” according to Denis Kuleshov.
Gaining FDA and CE certification may be a long-term goal, but for now Sensor-Tech is focusing primarily on the Russian market and on gaining recognition from the federal authorities. Achieving this would mean a stable level of income that could be used to research upgrades and perhaps begin the certification process for larger markets abroad.