When entrepreneurs talk about “disruption,” they are typically referring to the disruptive potential of their technology. They hope, that is, that their invention might have the power to shake up a long-established market and become the next Airbnb or GoFundMe. But “disruption” for a Deaf or hard-of-hearing entrepreneur can have a much more negative connotation.
Communicating with businesspeople in the hearing community—by working with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter services for important meetings “at the speed of business”—can be such a significant barrier for the Deaf that it disrupts workflow, hinders accessibility, hurts innovation, and frustrates everyone involved.
But three Deaf entrepreneurs based in Sonoma, CA—Brandon Marin, Greyson Watkins, and Spencer Montan—are looking to remove this barrier to entrepreneurial success. They are attempting to disrupt the current ASL interpreter service market with an app that they hope will become as ubiquitous and easy-to-use in the Deaf community as Uber is for city passengers wishing to hail a ride.
And to help Wivi Technologies get their new application—called Wivi—to market, Technology Commercialization Law Program (TCLP) students, supervised by College of Law Adjunct Professor Dominick Danna, have spent the spring 2018 semester developing important patent, intellectual property (IP), market, and regulatory landscapes. Marin, Watkins, and Montan recently discussed how Wivi came about, the new app, and the critical assistance TCLP students have provided their team.
How did your team come together to work on this new technology?
We came together after working on another start-up company, Hz Innovations Inc, dba Wavio. All of us being Deaf, we use ASL as the primary form of communication. After numerous barriers in finding ASL interpreters due to the rapid pace of the start-up world, and such issues as last-minute changes with meetings, we began to be concerned with a major problem in accessibility for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. We began to explore the need for Deaf people to have interpreters reserved in advance, having to pay for interpreting themselves, and not having the same flexibility in their lives as their hearing counterparts.
Organizing ASL interpreters sounds like a significant impediment not just for a Deaf or hard-of-hearing entrepreneur, but for any Deaf person …
Members of our team have diverse backgrounds—in computer security, business administration, and clinical psychology—but we all share the same vision of improving accessibility for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. We strongly believe in our vision to empower Deaf people to communicate freely and become more independent. From this inspiration, we decided to create an entirely new interpreter platform—Wivi—hoping to make access to interpreters convenient, quick, and simple. Our end goal is to offer a new communication tool that Deaf and hard-of-hearing users can use when realizing their ideas or when entering new fields and collaborating, or competing, with hearing counterparts. Our platform encourages the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community’s ecosystem to flourish.
Can you explain how your new ASL interpreter technology platform works?
After they have signed up, Wivi enables users to connect remotely to sign language interpreters within seconds from anywhere at any time. This platform will enable fluent, easy, in-person conversations between spoken English and ASL, using an interpreter via a mobile device. Wivi interpreters are paid by the minute, and our rate beats competitors due to our unique business model that eliminates the need for a traditional agency taking a cut of an interpreter’s pay. Our business model enables interpreters—after being approved by Wivi—to sign in and work from any enclosed, private space in the world with a stable network connection using their own mobile devices. By contrast, our competitors operate from their own agencies or they have mobile platforms that cannot be downloaded as an app, or that can only be used in limited settings, such by hospitals or government services.
Your platform sounds as though it will liberate the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community from an imperfect, technologically deficient status quo …
Often, Deaf people have to request interpreters themselves when communicating with hearing counterparts. With Wivi, even hearing counterparts can request interpreters as easily as anyone, eliminating excessive paperwork, invoicing, and a lengthy process. Current interpreting agencies emphasize their services over user experience. We are making the user experience one of the central tenets of our business model. We value how our users interact with this technology, and we allow them to become vocal about how the app works and the quality of interpreters via seamless feedback experiences and rapid connection to our support team. And we clearly acknowledge that Wivi is 100% Deaf/disabled owned; currently, there is a severe lack of Deaf-owned businesses in the start-up world.
It sounds as though user experience and competitive pricing for live interpreters were the market gaps that you identified …
On-demand interpreting services for live situations are scarce for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is most accessible in hospitals, but it is often difficult to use in other spaces. Additionally, Deaf people often have to accommodate interpreters’ scheduling, pricing, and advanced reservations, as well as pay for their traveling expenses. Finally, the Deaf and hard-of-hearing often are obliged to comply with interpreting agencies’ rigid policies and regulations. We predict a future in which interpreters working through VRI is a widely accepted method of interpreting for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community and in which future generations of Deaf people increasingly use technology for accessibility.
I guess this technology is going to change the conversation in more ways than one …
Engaging with interpreters via a remote connection and an intuitive app will change the way hearing people interact with Deaf people as well. Currently, hearing people often look at the interpreters rather than the Deaf person and speak to the interpreter rather than the Deaf person.
How did you find out about the College of Law’s Technology Commercialization Law Program (TCLP) and the services its student teams offer?
We are very fortunate to have the support of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Simone Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. They referred Hz Innovations to TCLP, and the Syracuse program helped us secure a patent for Wavio (US9870719B1, “Apparatus and method for wireless sound recognition to notify users of detected sounds”) within five months. The student team’s recommendations and assistance enabled us to further strengthen our collaboration with TCLP and move toward navigating the patent, intellectual property (IP), and market landscape for our new technology, Wivi.
What has been your experience working with the technology commercialization students?
The student team has provided exceptional and thorough patent, IP, and market research for Wivi Technologies. They followed through with strong recommendations, and they brought rich information and new possibilities about how our company can flourish. They answered the countless questions we had, and we truly loved their expertise and appreciated their honesty, especially when there were questions that ventured into gray areas. In terms of their professionalism, the students did an amazing job interviewing us and communicating about scheduling and the outline of the patent research. They were prompt, courteous, and built rapport with our team. We were most impressed by their ability to understand our diverse team of people who come from all walks of life. It is not often that we find people who truly try to understand Deaf people’s experiences.
How important are patent, IP, market, and regulatory landscapes for a start-up technology like yours?
Understanding how startups’ products must navigate the patent, IP, market, and regulatory landscapes is of utmost importance at the early stage of commercialization. These landscapes promote and protect entrepreneurs’ inventions, encourage them to innovate new products, and help them to get the competitive edge they need. Patents do not “block” startups from achieving what they want to; they are simply there to tell what we “can’t” do. Thus, research and thorough understanding are absolutely essential. If the patentability is there, it is a must to enter the patent process in order to protect investors’ funds and minimize their risks. Successfully securing a patent can lead to an immediate increase in a startup’s valuation. Startups that understand how to navigate through all of this are proven to be thinking outside the box. But creativity and ability also play a big role in crunching down on the specifics of a product.
As you continue to bring your Wivi technology to market, what are some of your next business steps?
We are currently focused on building our team and navigate through the waters of patents and IP protection. We are halfway to completing our first round of funding, and we aim to close the first round in June 2018 prior to the product launch. We also are preparing to complete app development and enter into beta testing with at least 100 Deaf consumers and 25 interpreters, then launch and target at least 1,000 users and 25 interpreters within the first quarter of launch. With the revenues coming in, we hope to expand our team, add new features to the platform, and power up our marketing efforts to acquire more consumers and interpreters to onboard the app and spread awareness among targeted customers.
That’s an ambitious timeline. What are some of the challenges that you foresee?
It is crucial to pay attention to retention rate once we acquire customers, due to the rapid evolution of the mobile industry. Hence, we aim to build relationships with the interpreting industry and with our customers. Our team is dedicated to improving the quality of interpreting standard and user experience, so we would like to conduct international market research in the near future once we start to scale up our app, in order to support those countries that do not have VRI providers for their Deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens. More importantly, we are pursuing the support and investor funds that can help scale the platform quickly.