As cities build sensors and data systems into infrastructure, a team of innovative engineering students realized that a blind person’s white stick could become a smart stick. With mentoring and support from Cisco, they developed a prototype device to transform the urban experience for people without sight.
The next wave of technological innovation will come from the connection of people, process, data, and things to the Internet: the Internet of Everything. For students today, the opportunities and potential for innovation are limitless and daunting. How to create something truly new and innovative?
A group of Cisco France employees involved in Corporate Social Responsibility hoped to stimulate innovation in France and support the GenY entrepreneurial spirit through a competitive contest and employee mentorship. A team led by Guillaume Desveaux and coordinated by Natacha Comar launched Le Défi Cisco, a challenge to apply technology to social and environmental issues.
Students in an entrepreneurship class at University of Lorraine in Nancy, France were stumped when their professor told them about Le Défi Cisco. No one had an idea, until Lucie d’Alguerre thought of her uncle, who is blind. She imagined a fully connected city that could transmit information to the white cane many blind and visually impaired people carry. Her professor connected her with 4 other Cisco Networking Academy students to develop a pitch for the contest.
Thirty teams competed in the first round of Le Défi Cisco. On Team Handisco, Florian Esteves and Mathieu Chevalier took the lead in developing the technology. Lucie used her connections to build partner relationships with the City of Nancy and Valentin Haüy, an association for the blind. Jonathan Donnard managed communications with Cisco, while Nicolas Frizzarin took responsibility for the financials and the business plan.
“Our idea is to really integrate all current technologies inside one single cane,” said Mathieu. “That’s where the innovation lies, to really allow blind people to move more independently but especially more safely within our cities.”
One of 6 teams to advance to the final round, Team Handisco met weekly with their technology and business development mentors from Cisco to develop their social innovation. Remi Philippe, a Cisco solution architect involved with the startup community in Paris, guided the team as a technology mentor, and Remi Sedilot, a Cisco sales manager, advised them in business plan development. They both were impressed by how well the team worked together.
“They’re engineers. They got excited about connecting the city with 5000 access points,” explained Remi Philippe. “We pushed them to define investment, timelines, and look at potential competitors like Google and JCDecaux who are looking into connecting cities. A startup has limited resources. No other company is focusing on the white stick, so they could get traction and solve a true problem using existing infrastructure.”
The team refined their pitch and prototype. A traditional white stick uses physical contact to convey information: It only “sees” what it can touch. The Handisco stick uses proximity captors with ultrasonic waves like those in a car bumper that emit a sound when backing up. The waves sense a wider spectrum of area and convey the information to the user through vibration. GPS technology provides local guidance, prioritized for real time conditions and a sightless traveler.
“I’ve seen 50 or 60 startup pitches, and no one did anything like this,” said Remi Philippe. “It’s the best example I’ve seen of the Internet of Everything. It’s a dumb device that becomes smart when it connects to all the other data and devices around it to make a real difference for the user.”
Cities have begun to include tagging systems as part of the municipal infrastructure, and making the data available in an open system. The smart stick gathers data from traffic lights, bus locations, road work sites, cross walks, and even weather conditions to provide real-time navigation. Tagged sensors at shops convey what the shop sells, where the entrance is, and business hours, making it easier for a blind person to discover a business district. They plan to include a security alert system to connect the stick owner to police, in case of emergency.
In the final round of Le Défi Cisco, the Handisco team received the top honor and a €70,000 award. “During the presentation to the judges, everyone said this is really innovative because the white stick has remained unchanged in the last 20 years, despite a period of profound change in society due to the Internet,” recalled Remi Sedilot.
What began as a class project has become an innovative startup enterprise. The 5 students barely knew each other and now they are business partners. With the prize money from Le Défi, they founded Handisco and began to pitch the company to investors. The team has developed a sustainable distribution and pricing model to move into other markets such as the elderly. In June 2014, the group received the Pepite Award, a National Prize for Innovation from the French Ministry of Education, and were honored to meet with French President François Hollande.
Remi Sedilot believes they won the contest and will continue to succeed because they are solving a real problem with a true innovation that builds on existing infrastructure. “They were very precise and consistent about what they would like to do,” he said. “They are proposing to help blind people gain autonomy and benefit from services created for other purposes.”
See the team in action: