There are more than 2.2B individuals who suffer from visual impairments. Tens of millions have severe impairments or even suffer from outright blindness. Besides costly surgeries (which isn’t always an option), sometimes the best aides available are seeing-eye dogs and probing canes. Even in these cases, the visually-impaired are left with few means that materially improve their well-being and their independence. The Sunu team has developed a wristband that utilizes sonar or echolocation technology to detect objects up to 16 feet away. The Sunu band is an excellent device that should immediately improve the quality of life and well-being of its users and we’re excited to have the opportunity to interview the founders, Marco Trujillo and Fernando Albertorio, so we could learn more about Sunu
For those that don't know, what is the genesis story of Sunu?
Marco & Fernando
My [Marco] childhood friend suffers from hearing impairment and is in fact, deaf. But during my childhood we built a strong bond and even our own way of communicating with each other. I helped him learn sign language and eventually get into a special school for the deaf. I realized that he was not the only person having a hard time living in a world with limited accessibility. Additionally, I’ve always been interested in technology and have created a device that would help individuals with cerebral palsy when I was younger. That encouraged me to study robotics and engineering. I developed 7 assistive technology devices. I think Sunu came about because of my dual interests in technology and wanting to help individuals who suffer from disabilities and merging the two into an entrepreneurial endeavor.
I [Fernando] was born with low vision, I’m legally blind because of albinism. My first and only assistive technology was a hand-held magnifier. I became interest in science and technology through my father, who was a pilot. Growing up around airplanes, and flying with my dad, even though I could never get my pilot’s license, allowed me to feel empowered and that there are really no limitations. I went on to study chemistry, much to the dismay of some of the faculty at my university. After graduation, I received a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. At NIH I worked with the leading expert in albinism and became active in the community. I then pursued my Ph.D. in Chemistry and went to Harvard to continue my postdoctoral research in Physics in 2006. Soon after, i created my first company and by 2014 had one of my products acquired. I met Marco in 2014 at the Mass Challenge in Boston, where I was mentoring. I tried the Sunu Band for the first time and it immediately changed my life. It helped reduce accidents with tree branches and sign posts etc. I joined the team as their lead mentor for the program and became a co-founder after winning MassChallenge.
What is haptic vibration and how is it incorporated into your product?
Marco & Fernando
Haptics is derived from the Greek word ‘Haptikos’, which means sense of touch.
Haptic technology uses touch to control or interact with a computer, a machine or device. The device may apply a sense of touch through vibrations, motions or force. The haptic vibration is a form of non-verbal communication to convey meaning.
The Sunu Band uses the LVM series Linear VIbration motors to provide haptic feedback via vibration pulses that are sensed on the user’s wrist.The haptic vibrations of the Sunu Band provides increased awareness and perception in order to improve mobility, orientation or direction information, navigation and time-telling. The LVM series motors provide a library of sensations that can be delivered to the user. This library consists of over 100 different types of vibrations. The haptic vibrations inform the user about:
- Proximity – pulse frequency increases as the user gets closer to an object of obstacle.
- Time – a series of short or long pulses convey the time of day (hours and minutes passed the hour). The user only need to know the numerical value for the short or long pulse.
- Orientation – Varying the smoothness and hardness of the vibration informs the user if they’re facing north or South.
What range of visual impairment does your product tailor to?
Marco & Fernando
Visual impairments include a wide spectrum of conditions and therefore needs. Our product is designed to satisfy many of these needs, and chief among these are mobility and navigation. There are 285M visually impaired worldwide, of which 39M are totally blind and 246M are low vision. In North America (US and Canada), 26.6M are visually impaired, that’s 3.2M blind and 23.4M low vision. Who MUST use Sunu Band? – anyone whose mobility, autonomy and daily living is stressed by frequent accidents (bumps and collisions) with obstacles.
We know that not everyone is going to be a user of our product. We’ve learned that people born totally blind, which amount to ~4% of the visually impaired population are highly adept with their mobility and tend not to rely on electronic mobility aids. However, they still need assistance with way-finding and navigation, which is a core need that Sunu Band solves.
Adults over the age of 50 are most at risk of losing their sight and total 186M worldwide. They are less likely to become adept and proficient at using the cane, and have the highest need for Sunu Band.
How do you plan on allocating funds raised in this round to scale the business?
Marco & Fernando
We plan to use the funds from our raise to expand our BD/sales to increase our distributor/reseller network worldwide. We aim to enter the subsidies channel, increase our sales to government programs such as the Veterans Affairs, Department of Rehab and Education. We’re also expanding our digital marketing, SEM/SEO aimed at scaling up our online sales. Our funding will also be applied to delivering our first app-based subscription service, which as mentioned above, will allow us to address a much broader customer base. Finally, our R&D efforts will enable us to produce our next generation hardware product.
Is your product designed to be used in isolation or with other tools (cane, guide dog, etc...)?
Marco & Fernando
Our products solve multiple problems for people who are blind and low vision. Sunu Band can be used along with the white cane and guide dog. It complements travel with these aids by extending awareness beyond the reach of the cane or guide dog. The cane helps guarantee the next step, it’s like an extension of the user’s hand in knowing about the terrain, changes in slope and detecting obstacles. But, the cane or guide dog cannot detect obstacles to the upper body and head like tree branches, vehicle mirrors, scaffolding, etc. By using Sunu Band the user gains more awareness about their environment.
Sunu Band can be used by people with low vision, partial sight, night blindness, etc, who don’t rely on a cane or guide dog.
What are the biggest risks associated with your business?
Marco & Fernando
On the operations side we have the risks associated with running a Hardware Startup: capital intensive, complex logistics and product quality assurance. That said, we have been operating our company for two years and solve/control many of these risks; we have done three production batches, enhanced product quality and optimized processes every time, built a world-wide distribution network, localize product for 30 countries, work credit lines with suppliers and other partners, but most importantly, building the right partnerships and hiring the right talent to manage all the last minute challenges of running a hardware company.
On the market side, our biggest risks are the appearance of a strong competitor, the slow sales-cycle or process of negotiating government and medical subsidies. Finally ensuring that our partners are successfully selling the product and therefore gaining repeat business.
How do you see the business evolving in the next 3-5 years? What does your potential product roadmap look like?
Marco & Fernando
We are reimaging what it means to live with a disability. Sunu will be the leader in the assistive technologies market. Our 3-5 year technology roadmap encompasses advances in our mobile app technology and innovation in wearable sensors.
I. Blind Toolbox App
Our product roadmap envisions new innovations in our mobile app for wayfinding and navigation. Our naivation app will become the “toolbox” for the visually impaired by leveraging GPS and 5G networks as well as crowd-sourced information/data around accessibility. The Sunu app is being developed and launched in three phases:
- Core navigation and wayfinding – complete.
- Access location information on ‘the go’.
- Explore the surroundings with augmented reality.
- Navigate to a destination.
- ‘A Wayz for the Blind’: Crowd sourced information of accessibility – Q2 2020
- Activate visually impaired users to report problems within a route, i.e. construction, dangerous street -crossings, etc.
- Activate visually impaired users to rate places based on their accessibility, i.e. restaurants, shops, buildings, transportation, etc.
- Create a community of volunteers sharing details about the accessibility of locations and places.
- Virilization & growth through gamification and rewards – Q4 2020
- A way for users to earn points, badges and recognition for being active and contributing accessibility information to the community.
- Rawards through discounts on assistive technologies and/or products for the bind
- Activate business (restaurants, cafes, shops) to engage with the blind and visually impaired consumer through promos and rewards.
By Q2-2020 we intend to determine the best value propositions to activate users to become paid members via a subscription model for the app. Similar to any SAAS, we intend to offer tier or levels of subscriptions to the app.
We just released the first phase of our newest navigation app and it’s already receiving a positive response within our user community.
II. Sunu Band X
We continue to validate and enhance the features within Sunu Band as a platform technology. We are paying particular attention to features that users will most likely subscribe to via our mobile app.
- Advanced sonar detections – Currently in-progress
- Algorithms to provide more information about objects,i.e. contour, shape, material type etc.
- Improved haptic communication
- Improved interface for seniors and the aging population.
- Next Generation Sunu Band – Q3-2020
- Improved design and versatility as a wearable. Can be worn as a watch, used as a pointer or clip-on.
- Enhanced obstacle detection and sensory communication. Will provide 3X more information via improved haptics and audio feedback.
- Improved connectivity via cell and wifi networks. Allows rehab and caregivers to stay better connected with the user.
III. Next Gen Smart Wearable Technology
We are developing the next generation of human augmentation technology that will take assistive devices to an entirely new level of integration, intelligence and connectivity. Our next wearable smart aid, called Sunu Nek will provide an even greater detailed environmental information by combining multiple sensors such as optical, sonar, and more. The Sunu Nek will provide visual assistance to blind and low vision users and will integrate more computing power than a smartwatch. The neckband form factor allows the device a ‘360 degree view’ of the environment, i.e. enhanced sensing capabilities, and the device will be able to provide better communication (both haptic and audio) while maintaining a stylish design.
- Research & Development – Complete
- Research program in navigation for the blind.
- Prototyping – 2020
- Validate core product functions with users with minimum viable prototype.
- Achieve market validation.
- Product Launch – 2021
We recently won into Telefonica’s IoT Activation program. This program will enable Sunu to accelerate its new wearable prototyping, testing and market validation of its next generation assistive technology.
What does your business model look like? How are you able to provide medical subsidies?
Marco & Fernando
We currently have a retail business model expanding in different channels and we look to add a subscription model on top later this year. Our product retails for $299 and cost us about $60 to built. We currently sell it through three different channels: 1) directly to consumers on our website, 2) through resellers and distribution partners which take from 20% to 40% usually depending on their commitment size, and 3) through subsidies, currently available by MassHealth (Medicaid for Massachusetts) and the Veterans Affairs Department in three cities.
Our device is a non intrusive aid (like a cane, magnifying lens), so it doesn’t require a heavy regulatory approval process, in fact is classified as an FDA Class I device, which facilitates all the distribution requirements, and still can be prescribed by a doctor.
What does the regulatory environment look like for a company doing what Sunu does?
Marco & Fernando
As Sunu is a device providing ASSISTANCE for individuals with visual impairments, there are few regulatory hurdles for us to overcome. Even then, we have various certifications certifying the safety and usability of our product. In fact, the way we’ve marketed our technology and it being an assistive device is beneficial for us as individuals can purchase the device out of pocket or with insurance.
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like?
Marco & Fernando
Our vision is a world where no human being should ever be disabled and where “disabilities” are no longer a sign of weakness, pity or discrimination. Our mission is empowering independence through technology that bridges the “access gap” by augmenting our human abilities. In 5 to 10 years, Sunu will have a wide catalog of products addressing multiple disability segments, with millions of active users and volunteers contributing to make the world more inclusive in their localities and a disability research center pioneering the race of human augmentation technology. We will have partners in every country and business models that adapt to all regions.
The KingsCrowd team is excited to see where Marco and his team are taking the company. We rated Sunu as a Top Deal early in January because of its exceptional social mission and the economics behind such a product ! We wish the team the best as they continue to grow.
Thank you. We encourage the audience and investors at KingsCrowd to please share Sunu. Sunu has opened an equity crowdfunding opportunity on Republic with a minimum investment of $100 via Republic’s Crowd SAFE.
About: Francis Vu
An investment professional with a background in private equity and venture capital having spent time conducting investments at VU Venture Partners and Pacific Oak LLC with a finance and management degree from Tulane University.