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Changing lives – at 13

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A 13-year-old California boy is the youngest person ever to receive venture capital investment in the United States. He spoke to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK at the recent Intel Capital Global Summit.

It looks like a toy. It’s built like a toy. But its Lego components camouflage a device that could revolutionise the lives of millions.

It’s called the Braigo, and it’s a braille printer made mainly from Lego pieces. That is only one of its remarkable aspects. Another is that it will potentially cut the cost of braille printers to one-tenth their current prices. But most remarkable of all is the fact that it was built by a young boy.

Shubham Banerjee was only 12 when he decided to make a braille printer out of Lego pieces for a 7th grade school science fair in early 2014. It was a sensation. He appeared on CNN and NBC, and his device went on to win the Synopsys Science and Technology Championship, the ultimate Silicon Valley schools science fair.

Shubham Banerjee with the original Lego braille printer he called the Braigo, and the Braigo 2.0 prototype

This month, Intel Capital, the venture capital (VC) division of chip-making giant Intel, announced the funding of 16 high-tech start-ups – including the finalisation of investment in Braigo Labs, making Banerjee the youngest ever American inventor to receive VC backing. Now 13, Banerjee was also the only start-up founder invited by Intel Capital president Arvind Sodhani to join him on stage during his keynote presentation at the organisation’s Global Summit in Los Angeles.

I asked my parents a random question,” he told the audience. “‘How do blind people read?’ They said, ‚ÄòGo Google it’. I just Googled it and found out about braille printers and how much they cost: $2000 upward. I thought that was pretty high.

If members of the audience were impressed, they were utterly disarmed by his lack of pretentiousness.

My science fair was approaching fast so I decided to bring this into the fair,” he told them. “I was just trying to help people. I never thought it would come this far.

Later, in a quiet moment between a string of meetings and interviews, he revealed that one of his primary motivations now was to make the printer accessible to people in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

I got a lot of feedback from people around the world asking me if they can buy it off the shelf, so I wanted to bring a real printer into the market – not just a Lego piece, but a real state of the art printer.

We could build prototypes and send them to underprivileged kids, and teach them how to learn and use braille. I just want to help the visually impaired. People have been taking advantage of them for a very long time and I want that to end.

Shubham was joined in the conversation by blind PhD student Hoby Wedler, who had heard about the printer and immediately emailed Shubham and his father, Niloy. The two came out to the University of California at Davis, where Hoby was conducting research in organic chemistry. He became an advisor to Braigo, and is also something of a spokesman for the company.

“Everyone needs to be literate, but braille is hard to produce without an expensive printer. Shubham has allowed us to do that on a very lightweight printer.

It’s changing both work and home life for Hoby.

I’m a scientist, so I want to get things to do with chemistry into braille. I’m also an avid cook: I always want to print out hard copies of recipes and put the on a counter and read them while cooking. This machine will be life-changing and revolutionary once everything comes into play and the device works.

Hoby has become both an advisor and an inspiration to Shubhan, complementing the role his parents play. His mother, Malini, is president of the company that is building the printers, Braigo Labs.

According to Shubhan, his parents’ support has been crucial. “If they think I am into something, they are very supportive. Some ideas they would say no, don’t do that, that’s impossible, but after I built the printer, they gave me full support. The project eventually cost me $30 000, and my parents funded that. I’m glad Intel has funded me, because now I’m not a burden on their shoulders.

Over lunch, Niloy took up the story: “When he was two years old he used to love Lego. He couldn’t do it from the books but he used to build weird stuff. As it evolved, whenever there was a science fair project, I always encouraged him not to do the normal projects that kids use.

Being in Silicon Valley, all my friends and friends’ friends are engineers, always talking about new stuff, and he always hears and that’s how it evolves. My wife’s a teacher by profession, and we’ve always encouraged him to look beyond the textbooks, and we have good discussions around the dining table.

Niloy confirmed what one would expect from Shubham: he never falls behind in homework, and takes on extra work to stretch his abilities.

He won’t be a drop-out from school just to do this thing. As you grow as a person, you need an education to succeed in life.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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