“People with disabilities can be empowered significantly with the right set of technology and we ensure that none is left behind”, says Narayanan Ramakrishnan, founder and CEO of Avaz Inc. Avaz focuses on assistive technology products for people with disabilities. In an exclusive interview with StartupEd Narayanan Ramakrishnan had described everything about the venture and how it is helping thousands of specially- challenged people out there. 6
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Q: Tell us a little bit about your venture?

Avaz Inc is focused on building state-of-the-art assistive technology products for people with disabilities. The company’s products include Avaz: an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device for people with speech disabilities; FreeSpeech, an AI-based language exploration tool for children with language-related disabilities (TED Talk); MDA Avaz Reader – a product that enables children to read independently (dyslexiareader.com). Our products are being used by thousands of people around the world – in India, Sri Lanka, USA, Australia, UK, France, Sweden, Denmark amongst multiple other countries.

Q: What stimulated you to start your venture?

I am trained as a software engineer. I began my career so to speak, solving “large technical” problems in corporations in Bangalore. Around that time I started volunteering at the Spastics Society of Karnataka, Bangalore. One of my friends there was a boy with cerebral palsy who could not use his fingers to type on the computer. I saw him use a Nokia 6600 phone (which had one of those joysticks!) to communicate with an application on a computer to type out documents quickly. This experience opened my eyes to the fact that people with disabilities can be empowered significantly with the right set of technologies.
This experience kick-started my journey towards making technology a tool of empowerment for people with disabilities. With this central aim, I pursued an MS (from Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta) where I focused on Assistive Technology related domains. Soon after, I began working on Avaz to enable people to communicate!
I would like to point out here that Avaz began as a hardware device in 2009. It was the brainchild of Ajit Narayanan, an IIT alumnus and founder of Avaz Inc. It grew into the award-winning product that it is today over a series of iterations.

Q: Entrepreneurship is all about problem-solving. For E.g. – A young guy couldn’t find a taxi, he founded UBER which transformed the way people commute. What is the problem set you are working with?

Up until a few years ago, if you had difficulty in speaking and were living in India, you had limited means by which you could express your thoughts, feelings or needs. One could rely on static pictures and sign language. Or import expensive, bulky and unreliable devices from the West.
To bridge this gap, we created Avaz. Avaz ensures that every person in India has a voice. Avaz ensures that no one is left behind. Today, Indians (and thousands of people around the world) with speech disability use Avaz to ask for a dosa at home or shop, to purchase something at a big supermarket or participate better in a classroom!

Q: What is the cue behind the name Avaz?

Avaz, in Hindi, means voice. One of our core beliefs is that every individual has the right to communicate and express themselves. Society’s inability to understand and accept disabilities should not be an obstacle in the realization of this right. We are convinced that removing socially constructed obstacles in the way of communication and providing a voice to people with disabilities is the best way to empower them to gain autonomy over their lives.
Hence Avaz was a great name that encapsulates what we believe.

Q: What are your plans for the growth of Avaz?

We see a lot of areas where technology intervention can empower people with disabilities. Imagine a child who finds it difficult to read English. We have created a product that can help them read independently by using supports that an actual teacher would provide. It’s called MDA Avaz Reader – and it is going to be a game-changer for children who have difficulties in reading. Also, we are aware that technology intervention is only a part of the solution.
Hence we work closely with communities, schools and government organizations – to train and empower parents, special educators, speech therapists and other caregivers in their work with children and adults with complex communication needs. Through partnerships with multiple stakeholders in the system, we can envisage a future where children with special needs can lead empowered lives with Avaz.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you have made in your journey and if you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

During our initial stages, we engaged in a marketing agency. With their one-size-fits-all approach, we soon realized that this was just not going to work for a niche target market such as ours. It required specialized attention and understanding of the customer.
If I could rewind the clock, I would have spent the same amount of money to hire and build an in-house marketing team who can able to empathise with the customer and connect with them. Which is what we did after our engagement ended. We could have saved about a year of going down the wrong direction.

Q: This is a hypothetical situation- imagine that you can invite anyone for dinner and they would surely accept your invitation. Who would you invite and why?

I would like to meet Dr Richard Feynman. His life, for me, defines curiosity and an incredible urge to find answers. The childlike quality of being fascinated by the world around and wanting to know more about it. This is so important to maintain throughout one’s life – this enthusiasm and ability for lifelong learning. What’s more, he managed to do that through some of his toughest times. I read many of his books. I imagine meeting him and getting a chance to pick his brains about life, the universe and everything would be an incredibly meaningful experience.

Q: What is that one advice you would like to give to all the entrepreneurs out there?

Everyone talks about following your passion. And that’s great. One must follow their heart if their circumstances and resources allow. However, passion is merely like the fuel required for your car. The plans that you create and execute to bring the dream to life are the steering wheel. And this is what is important.

Don’t be under the impression that you can substitute planning with just passion or faith. Even working on your passion may seem like drudgery at times. What is important in such times is to just keep showing up and doing what is required.