June 21, 2018
Jason D. Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter based in Chicago.
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For most of us, our ability to see, hear, and move without assistance are but fleeting privileges. We will grow old and, with age, feel the abilities we take for granted today slowly but inexorably slip away. And then there are many people who, by circumstance of birth or later life events, aren’t able to see, hear, or move parts of their bodies without assistance.

The good news is there are many companies out there looking to develop tools, treatments, and solutions for disabled people. Furthermore, investors are committing capital to those technologies.

The chart below shows worldwide venture investment in the field. For how we defined this category, and what resources we used to inform the language we used in discussing assistive technologies, it is encouraged you read our methodology section at the end of this article.

According to our analysis, venture capital dollar volume grew by 133 percent between 2012 and 2017, from $118.5 million to $276.5 million per year. During that same period of time, the number of VC deals grew by 87 percent, from 38 deals struck in 2012 to 71 in 2017.

Why Now Might Be A Great Time To Develop Assistive Technology

There is a real opportunity to enable people to do more things, get more places, and lead more independent lives.

Taken together, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, according to the United Nations. Additionally, the UN notes that the average person in countries with life expectancies over 70 years will live with a disability for at least 8.5 years of their life. In the United States and throughout much of the rest of the world, people from the post-World War II “Baby Boom” will be retiring over the next fifteen years or so. And, indeed, they will most likely require some sort of assistance as they grow older.

That’s the cold, calculating, capitalist conclusion here: there’s a big market that’s only set to grow bigger.

But there are plenty of other reasons to build assistive technology businesses. There is a real opportunity to enable people to do more things, get more places, and lead more independent lives.

The advent of 3D printing and other rapid prototyping technologies make getting into the hardware game easier than ever. Advances in computer vision and other machine learning technologies let computers “see” and process more visual information than even the most keen-eyed human ever could. And, in smartphones, there’s a computing and software platform that’s darned near ubiquitous.

There is also the chance that a new technology developed for a small population of users could end up making the world a better place for everyone. Here are a handful of startups that are employing hardware, software, and medical device technologies aimed at making tech accessible for all of us.

Assistive Software And Services

User1st provides a cloud-based service designed to make any website accessible without changing the existing codebase. It has raised $5 million from 500 Startups, Cornerstone Venture Partners, Mayaan Ventures, and others. (For those interested in learning more about web accessibility issues, check out the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines compiled by WC3.)

SignAll, a Budapest-based startup that raised nearly $1.9 million in seed funding in 2016, translates American Sign Language into written English in a chat interface using a combination of machine learning, computer vision, and natural language processing technologies. Its software also captures spoken English and converts it into text, so Deaf and partially deaf people can carry on conversations with hearing people.

Assistive Hardware

Based in San Carlos, California, WHILL designs and distributes electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters designed with maneuverability and aesthetics in mind. The company has raised $32.3 million in venture funding since it was founded in 2012.

Wheelchairs can also be accessorized. Rowheels, founded in Wisconsin, developed a patented hardware add-on to manual wheelchairs that propels the chair forward when its rider pulls—rather than pushes—their chair’s wheels forward. The company has raised over $2.1 million in venture funding, according to Crunchbase data.

For color-blind people, Enchroma develops a lens technology designed to increase color discrimination. A New York Times article about the company says the lenses were originally developed to protect surgeons’ eyes from lasers and aid in tissue detection. Is inventor, Don McPherson, found that the technology could also help color-blind people see a wider color spectrum.

Medical Devices

BrainControl is a biofeedback-based augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device that acts as a kind of “mental joystick” for individuals who are cognitively aware but are unable to move or communicate. The company has working prototypes of a virtual keyboard, wheelchair control, and other implementations. BrainControl closed a €2.5M seed round from RedSeed Ventures in June.

And while San Francisco may be known for its abundance of SaaS and consumer startups, two medical device companies call the area home. Seed-funded pharmaceutical startup Spiral Therapeutics is developing products for the prevention of hearing loss and other inner ear disorders. Meanwhile, UNYQ has raised $18.8 million for its use of 3D printing technology to build customized orthopedic devices like scoliosis braces and covers for lower and upper-limb amputees’ prosthetic devices.

The World Of Assistive Tech Remains Diverse And Diffuse

Because there are so many different kinds of disabilities, there hasn’t really been any centralization in the space.

For all people, this could come as something of a relief. There will likely always be a market opportunity for assistive technology. There are a seemingly infinite number of niches for entrepreneurs to fill in the market. Entrepreneurs often say they’re changing people’s lives or making the world a better place, and assistive technology is one of the few sectors where that’s particularly true.

How We Found Our Data And Talked About This Topic

To pull our initial dataset, we performed a keyword search of Crunchbase descriptions based on the following set of keywords: assistive, disability, disabilities, blind, vision loss, visually impaired, visual impair, impaired vision, braille, screen reader, deaf, hearing loss, hearing impaired, impaired hearing, hard of hearing, closed caption, wheelchair, wheel chair, mobility scooter, orthotic, prosthetic, prostheses.

We subsequently de-duplicated our results and performed some manual data cleaning. Since new data (including from deals struck in the past) is being added to Crunchbase all the time, it’s best to think of these numbers as indicative of general trends, rather than set in stone.

In writing this article, we tended to use “identity-first” language. When possible, following word-choice guidelines from the American Psychological Association, we use phrases like “blind person” or “wheelchair users,” rather than “person-first” language like “people who are deaf.” This being said, person-first language is preferred by many people with disabilities, and we also used that framing where appropriate in the article.

For those interested in reading more about the debate between person-first and identity-first language, the International Federation Of Adapted Physical Activity published an editorial on the subject. And The Mighty—a digital health community “created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities”—highlighted comments from people with disabilities in an article from 2015.

We also cross-referenced the Disability Language Style Guide, produced by the National Center on Disability and Journalism, to keep unintentionally biased language to a minimum.