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honoree and speaker at the gala.
Kanuganti, who was then attending the UC San Diego Rady School of Management, and Chang had come up with a system to let a blind person to take advantage of Google Glass, the tech giant’s still-experimental Internet-connected eyewear with an optical head-mounted display on one lens and a camera that records what the wearer is seeing. (While Google halted retail sales earlier this year, Bock said the technology is still available to potential commercial partners.)
Kanuganti and Chang modified the glasses so a blind or low-vision user can connect to a call center—Bock describes it as “mission control”—where a guide can watch a live video feed from the camera. (They removed the optical head-mounted display, which is of little use to blind or low-vision users.)
Their idea was to create something like an OnStar service for visually impaired pedestrians. The guide, like an air traffic controller talking a pilot through a crowded sky, can help an Aira user navigate through a congested hotel lobby, busy downtown streets, and other bewildering situations. With access to the Internet, the guide also can call up anything from restaurant menus to bus schedules, and provide relevant information to a user via a miniaturized microphone-speaker embedded in the eyewear’s temple stem.
Agents could work in a call center or out of their home. “One of the things we’re hoping for is that some of those agents would also be disabled—like disabled vets who have good computer skills and can see, but can’t leave the home,” Bock said.
For Bock, the most outstanding characteristic of the technology as a user is that it’s inconspicuous. He embraced the idea as an investor, and joined the startup as executive chairman to advance the technology and help develop a marketing strategy.
They named the company Aira, combining the concept of artificial intelligence, or AI, with Ra, the Egyptian god who sends his eye across the land to restore order amid chaos. It’s an apt metaphor for the blind, Bock said.
So far, Aira has raised $325,000 in seed funding from Bock Family Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, and Lux Capital, where Bock has been a special limited partner since 2003. The company is looking to raise a Series A round in the fall.
The Aira team is now planning a beta trial in July of its remote assistance technology, which would be provided to customers as a tiered, subscription-based service. “It’s sort of an Uber-style model, where you’re routed to an available agent,” Bock said. A trial should help the team determine how affordable the technology would be. Bock anticipates that Aira would provide different levels of service. A premium subscriber, for example, would be able to connect with a select agent for guidance, instead of calling into a pool and getting the first available agent.
Bock concedes that Aira is targeting a niche market, but he says it is not insignificant. The National Federation of the Blind estimates that nearly 7 million Americans are legally blind, with central visual acuity of 20/200 or less, but the Aira team estimates as many as 20 million are sufficiently visually impaired to use Aira’s technology.
Developing wearable technology tied to an Internet-enabled guide service might seem like a radical departure for a biotech investor like Bock, who has traditionally focused on drug development and biopharmaceutical startups.
But Bock says every project he’s worked has involved the creation of technology that didn’t previously exist. “In most of the companies I got involved with, I sort of figured out a breakout area, identified the most prominent leaders in that field, and licensed the core technology,” Bock told me.
That willingness to take risks in areas “before they are even named” is Bock’s biggest skill, says Arch’s Nelsen. “When he is doing a company you can’t talk to him about things other than that effort. It consumes him. I would back him even if he was starting a coffee shop.”
Bock, traditionally steeped in biopharma, seems to be sensing a shift. He’s excited that biopharma therapies, including stem cells, could potentially halt the progress of Stargardt’s disease. (The defective gene behind the condition was discovered recently.) But he contends that assistive technologies for the disabled currently “surpass the promise of any pharmaceutical treatments.” “The [fact] that a double amputee runner with prosthetic blades can now run as fast as the fastest men in the world…shows the promise of assistive technology,” Bock says. “I can read faster than most of my sighted friends with the help of a Kurzweil reader, and very soon the Deka bionic arm or a robotic exoskeleton might enable an amputee or paraplegic person to lift more weight than a normal person.”
“That a person with a bionic ear could hear better and in potentially in more areas of the sound spectrum than a normal person means that there will be a point where a disabled person may be able to perform better than a normal person.”
Drugs to treat macular degeneration still have blockbuster potential, as Genenetech showed with ranizumab (Lucentis), a breakthrough treatment for the wet form of the disease in 2006.
But Bock says the slow development time and likely incremental improvements of drugs now pale next to the speed at which an assistive technology like Aira can proceed to market (and without the same level of regulatory headaches). Perhaps more importantly, Bock said a new drug therapy for the visually impaired is just “not going to change your ability to conduct your life in the same way an assistive technology would.”