Publication Date: Friday, April 26, 2002
Flying Blind; running on empty
Flying Blind; running on empty
(April 26, 2002)@12subhead:Funding freezer challenges startup's mission to market innovative device for the blind
By Danek S. Kaus
Starting and running a new business is hard; it's even tougher when you're blind. Kenneth Frasse, president and CEO of Mountain View based Flying Blind Technologies, Inc., is blind. So is Vice President of Engineering, Dean Hudson.
"It's incredibly tough," Frasse says. "You have to put in so much more effort to get similar jobs done." The two started their company to develop and market products that will revolutionize the ways in which the blind interact with high tech in particular, and the world in general.
According to Frasse, who lost his eyesight from complications of surgery for diabetes, someone loses their sight every five seconds. There are 180 million blind and vision impaired people in the world, and 26 million of them live in industrialized countries. 75 percent of blind people are unemployed.
Frasse hopes to dramatically change the employment situation with a new device called the Electronic Scribe, which acts as pen and paper for the blind, and much more. It is a cross between a PDA and a laptop, but is smaller than a laptop. It contains a full-power word processor, address book, browser and e-mail application, using speech for its output. Unlike other software and hardware for the blind, all of the applications are completely accessible. The user needs to know only five keystrokes to access any function.
The Electronic Scribe is also wireless. "Imagine how a blind person could use it to access the internet while riding a bus or train," Frasse says. His company has already produced a working prototype and they have created software that enables other software manufacturers to make their products accessible for the blind.
Frasse already envisions one application for the software: voting. "When I vote I have to bring someone to read the ballots to me," Frasse says. "It's not very private." He would like to have his software installed in voting machines to make it easier for blind people to exercise their constitutional right.
Because Frasse is so intimately aware of the problems that the blind face, he and Hudson had to teach their programmers "how to be blind." During the hiring process some of the candidates got so excited about the possibilities that they went home and downloaded the speech recognition software.
Then they turned off the monitor and tried to use the computer. "Those were the ones we hired," Frasse says. "They showed the kind of initiative we were looking for."
But their initiative may have been wasted.
Flying Blind received $1.5 million in angel funding from Citadel Capital Management Group, of Pasadena. Citadel's parent company, J. T. Wallenbroch & Associates, also of Pasadena, is being investigated by the SEC. All of the companies funded by Citadel have had their assets frozen, Frasse said.
They have no money to launch the product or pay staff, most of whom have been let go. "We're flying on fumes," he says. "We kept one person because we need a pair of eyes here."
He is currently looking for other sources of funding, and is optimistic about finding them. "The technology risk is low because the product is already built and ready to go into production," Frasse says. "The market risk is low because the governments of most countries will subsidize a product like this."
His key concern, however, is enabling blind people to have the tools that can help them find well-paying jobs.
"This company and our products have been built by two blind guys who have a dream to make a difference around the world for the blind," Frasse says.
For more information on Flying Blind Technologies, visit www.fbt.com.