By Fred Grier
A little over four years ago, Suman Kanuganti and Amy Bernal were finishing up their MBA program at the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management. Needing a few more units towards earning his degree, Kanuganti participated in the Rady StartR program, a nonprofit accelerator, with the focus on building a product.
Leveraging his strengths as a technologist and innovator, Kanuganti seized the unique opportunity to help his friend, Matt Brock, a blind communications professional, navigate the world more easily. With Google Glass technology being introduced that year, Kanuganti harnessed the smart glasses concept to create Aira, a tech-based service for the visually impaired that helps them gain access to visual information with wireless camera and communications technology.
We chatted with both Aira co-founders, Kanuganti and Bernal, about their experience being UCSD entrepreneurs and the journey to launch Aira, today’s fastest growing assistive community.
Meaning: Aira’s (pronounced EYE-rah) name was coined from two interesting sources: The first two letters stem from the emerging field of artificial intelligence (AI) and the second of the word stems from the initials of remote assistance.
Year Founded: 2015
Headcount: 57 full-time employees, 20 contractors, and hundreds of agents across the country
Headquartered: UTC, La Jolla
Technology: “Our service is a combination of leading technologies, such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and wearable devices, that work hand-in-hand with the human interaction delivered by our network of professional agents,” explains founder Suman Kanuganti, who also serves as CEO.
Real-Time Mobility: Aira combines multiple working components (mobile app, smart glasses, an agent, and a dashboard) to provide users with a service that boosts mobility and independence. By using information in the users’ environment, relayed from their smartphone and a smart glass, Aira’s trained agents can walk them through any activity, all in real time.
Agents: Agents are specially selected and trained through an extensive four-step process. “Our agent selection is very selective – we only choose 1% of applicants. We find really special people who are trained and are effective problem solvers,” Bernal says.
Funding: Aira has raised a combined total of $15 million in Series A and B rounds. Lead investors include San Francisco-based JAZZ Venture Partners and Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Arboretum Ventures. These two were joined by Lux Capital, ARCH Venture Partners, Felicis Ventures, and the National Federation of the Blind.
Competitive Edge: Although many vision products focus on Optical Character Recognition (OCR) there are many limitations; this is where Aira shines.
“What sets us apart from others is not just how we do things, it’s why we do them,” Kanuganti says. “We believe that a key challenge faced by those who are blind or have low vision is not lack of vision, but lack of visual information. That’s why our human-in-the-loop technology empowers Agents to provide this information in real time, as well as build AI systems that will go a long way in creating the assistive technology – and AI – of the future.”
Programs: The Aira Access program allows local businesses and organizations to be completely accessible to those who are visually impaired. Some notable partnerships with San Diego enterprises include San Diego International Airport, Balboa Park, City Hall, San Diego Central Library downtown, and the San Diego Convention Center.
Bernal shares some of Aira’s strategic goals as the company expands. “We are looking to build partnership networks across the university system, smart cities, employers, retail locations — creating an Aira city. No matter the tasks throughout the day, you are able to access the service largely free of charge.”
Digital Assistance: The World Health Organization estimates 253 million people are living with impaired vision. Aira has partnered with AT&T to provide the blind and those with low vision a more accessible life. Now, people around the world who are visually impaired can use smart glasses to access public transportation, navigate busy streets, shop in stores, or recognize people without another person physically accompanying them. Through this partnership, Aira and AT&T have also assisted with new challenges like starting college, watching the solar eclipse, and even helped a vision-impaired runner in the Boston Marathon. Additionally, Aira offers its technology and services to US military veterans who are blind or have low vision. The company also employs veterans and their spouses as part of Aira’s agent family.
Resources: Aira’s co-founders credit a large part of their early success to the StartR program at Rady, and EvoNexus. “These two programs facilitated a physical space to get started and grow. They also enable access to mentors; both the EvoNexus and Rady staff have been fantastic at connecting us to the right people in town,” Bernal says.
Another resource utilized was the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. “They have been a great asset at connecting us to potential access partners,” she says.
Kudos: Aira was recently noted by TIME magazine as one of the 2018 best inventions of the year. Aira is also the recipient of a 2018 Edison Award, which celebrates achievements in technological innovation; and nabbed the 2017 Innovation Entrepreneur Awards for Startup of the Year by the Consumer Technology Association.
Overcoming Challenges: The Aira team has worked diligently to reduce time effects due to network delays. New technology allowed them to optimize the quality of video streaming and reduce network delay to currently less than 2 milliseconds (depending on network reception in the area). For the smart glass market, Google Glass was one of the first, but it had limited capabilities and costs were expensive. “We went out to the market, found other products with the specs we needed, and eventually created our own smart glasses,” Bernal says.
San Diego Ecosystem: Aira’s co-founders agree that the local ecosystem is very neighborly and steadily improving. “You can always get a phone call or meeting with someone, and people are always willing to help you out,” Bernal says. But, she adds that one of the biggest barriers is access to capital. “It is hard to find money beyond initial seed rounds when pitching to investors and VCs. It can be limiting when your company is not based in the Bay Area; they often want their portfolio in their backyard in a sense.”
Secret to Success: When giving advice to startup entrepreneurs, Bernal provides three rules of thumb to kickstart a successful company. “Make sure you meet a real unmet customer need, think thoroughly about the entire business model, and remember it will take multiple attempts when trying to raise money.”
What’s Next: One of the most requested features among Aira’s customers is medication recognition. With this in mind, Aira has partnered with AT&T to correctly identify prescriptions and over-the-counter medications using Aira’s new AI agent Chloe™. Bernal hints that we can expect Chloe™ to have much greater capabilities in the next year. Looking forward, Aira’s founders shared they want to expand in more verticals and also double down in their core market.
Taco Craze: When asked to pick their favorite spot when wanting to satisfy their taco cravings, Bernal prefers the Taco Stand in San Diego because it’s close to her downtown home, while Kanuganti likes Las Hadas.
Off the Clock: The Aira team shares their favorite hobbies when they are not working. Kanuganti is known to do many half marathons and shares that hobby with many Aira team members, including Bernal. “I loving living in San Diego where we can run 365 days a year,” she says.
Employment Opportunity: Individuals with a passion to help those with vision impairments and are fluent in English, can apply for the Aira Agent Training Program.
Editor’s note: TritonTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on UC San Diego students (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work and problem-solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.
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