One young entrepreneur recently learned the value of passion, ingenuity, and determination.
When they told their son to “Google it,” 13-year-old Shubham Banerjee’s parents never knew their son’s question would not only lead to a winning science-fair project, but ultimately a successful tech company. In December 2013, Banerjee (pictured) noticed some online posts requesting help for the blind. When he asked his parents how blind people read, they told him to find the answer online. Shubham, who was born in Belgium but has lived in San Jose, Calif., since he was 3, soon learned about Braille, the written language for the hearing-impaired that consists of various combinations of raised dots. He also discovered that a typical Braille printer, which translates text into Braille and embosses the raised dots onto paper, costs at least $2,000.
“I felt that was unnecessarily expensive for someone already at a disadvantage,” Banerjee says. “I put my brain to work, and the first thing that came to mind was to create an alternative using my favorite toy.”
Banerjee learned about Braille, and he recognized a similarity between the language and the raised connectors of Lego blocks. Over the next three weeks, he broke and reassembled several printer models. Using one of those printer models and his $350 Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit, Banerjee designed a type of Braille printer that embosses the tactile bumps into a roll of calculator paper using a basic thumb tack. Banerjee called it Braigo. Determination soon followed his ingenuity.
“For the couple of weeks, it was very long days for me,” he says. “I started working on Braigo after I finished my homework and assignments, and some days I was awake until 2 a.m. But it was all worth it.”
Banerjee was more concerned about providing a solution than getting rich. So that anyone could build their own model, he shared his plan online in an open-source format. After Braigo won the county science fair last January, the media picked up news of Banerjee’s invention, and people with vision impairments began contacting him, asking if he could make a consumer model for them to buy.
During his most recent summer vacation, Banerjee got to work on designing a prototype made from parts of a desktop printer and an Intel chip with integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. His father provided financial support for his initial efforts.
“My parents have been supportive, and my dad pumped in his own money to support me,” Banerjee says. “You can say he was my first angel investor.”
Banerjee named his company Braigo Labs, and within a few months of its founding, Intel came knocking on the door. After plenty of “due diligence by lawyers and businesspeople,” the venture-capital arm of the corporation, Intel Capital, financed the company with an undisclosed sum of money, reportedly several hundred thousand dollars. In fact, Braigo Labs was one of only 16 tech startups in which Intel invested in 2014, and Banerjee is the youngest-ever tech entrepreneur funded by any major venture capital firm.
“It was a big surprise that they found the project important enough to invest,” Banerjee says. “I appreciate the fact that they wanted to invest to help me take this product to the market.”
Banerjee found success not only by creating a solution to a common problem, but also by sticking with his project beyond the prototype stage. He was able to determine a need in a market of about 285 million visually-impaired people. His company is now set to develop a new prototype that more closely resembles a typical printer, one that will hopefully launch in the next year. If the product can be marketed for less than $500, it will already cost 75 percent less than current models.
Following his practically overnight success, Banerjee offers one piece of advice to fellow entrepreneurs: “Go after the problem that you want to solve and not the expected return in terms of money,” he says. “Passion comes first, then the financials will follow.”