According to WHO, worldwide, around 1.4 million children under the age of 15 are blind. Yet approximately half of all childhood blindness can be avoided by treating diseases early and correcting abnormalities at birth such as cataracts and glaucoma. Up to 80% of all blindness in adults is preventable or treatable. Among children, the major causes of avoidable blindness include cataracts, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), and Vitamin A deficiency.
Sanskriti Dawle is the CEO of Thinkerbell Labs. Thinkerbell Labs has created a tech ecosystem to enable self-learning and classroom teaching for the visually impaired.
ANNIE smart class
Sanskriti begins, “I started the company in 2016 although we were working on the idea since 2013. Our mission is to make education inclusive, right now we are starting with braille literacy but our overall vision is to look at any sorts of special education needs where technology can have a disproportionate impact on leveling the plane field.”
Sanskriti mentions, “Something that drives all four founders is we are very keen to build high-quality technology to solve global issues. We all have a great alignment between our ambitions and our impact. Thinkerbell Labs has a great work culture.”
Sanskriti adds, “When you are building a product for children, it should allow them to enjoy and make fun. There are more than 50 ANNIE smart classes across 16 states and in more than 9 languages. We are set to enter the US market where every new visually impaired child will be learning by our technology.”
Sanskriti narrates, “There is a co-relation between braille literacy and future employability. If a blind person is braille literate, then they are 70% more likely to have employment later in life.
We set up our first ANNIE smart class in Ranchi in 2018. After a year, the school enrolments were increased massively because people in the nearby villages had heard this thing that ‘the government has introduced some technology for the children. Parents of blind children who were considering their child as a liability have started sending their children to school thinking the child will learn something for the better. Thus, ANNIE was able to change the whole society's perspective. And for me, this was the big moment.”
“Through ANNIE, there was a slight shift in the mindset of people where the teacher is not teaching students but students are learning by themselves and teachers are felicitating them.”
Thinkerbell showcased in Shark Tank
Thinkerbell was showcased in Shark Tank India. A student of ANNIE class 'Prathmesh' demonstrated the electronic device ANNIE. ANNIE is a voice tutor that teaches children how to read, write and type in braille, it's much like a video game. The company acquired Rs 1.05 crore from Shark Tank India’s sharks namely, Lens kart founder Peyush Bansal, Emcure executive director Namita Thapar, and Shaadi.com & People Group founder Anupam Mittal.
Funds for Thinkerbell labs
Sanskriti says, "We have raised around 7 crores of funding so far. Funds are getting utilized in growing ANNIE. We are having a solidified relationship with an American printing house in the US, we want to also start exploring the learning ecosystem. Now we are going deeper into special education needs which covers around 15% of the global ed-tech market.”
Goal and future expansion
Sanskriti informs, “We have one very simple goal and that is 100% braille literacy. Our country also doesn’t have 100% literacy in general. We can see the compounding effects by putting efforts early and how it changes society over time. That's our future goal. I would like to send an appeal to the viewers that if our mission resonates with yours, please reach out to us. We want to make this happen.”
Sanskriti emphasizes, “Our company always holds the principle that children should never pay for their special needs. It's not their responsibility to bridge that gap of special needs. Thus, we make sure to partner with government or sponsors for government or private schools for the availability of ANNIE. ANNIE is extremely cheap when compared to current technology. Because of its cost-effectiveness, ANNIE smart class was nominated for the PM innovation prize because it delivers the same learning outcomes at 1/5th of the cost and in a fraction of seconds. Thinkerbell labs have also received National Startup Award for access to institutional education.”
Sanskriti ends, "If you apply the talent and opportunity that is present here in India, you can solve global problems at the fraction of cost.”
(Edited by Renu Gupta)