The final prototype for the BuzzClip, a mobility tool for the blind, culminated after 18 months of research and design, and it is now being used by more than 800 individuals.
This project, developed by Bin Liu, a U of T civil engineering graduate and co-founder of iMerciv, was awarded $100,000 through the TELUS Pitch small business competition. Recognized for their promising startup, the team won the grand prize of $100,000 among nearly 3,000 entries. The panel of judges included Arlene Dickinson, the CEO of District Ventures Capital. The other two finalists, Flashfood and JamStack, received a $10,000 prize.
iMerciv specializes in developing technologies to assist those dealing with vision loss, and aims to be a leader in the market by providing a one-stop shop for vision loss and mobility related products. The company’s featured product, the BuzzClip, is a wearable device that uses ultrasound technology to detect obstacles in the user’s path, particularly those at head level. Vibrations notify the user of an obstacle allowing them to recognize and navigate around the obstacle.
The name iMerciv stems from Liu’s desire to give visually impaired users a living experience that is more immersive. Combined with Liu’s interest in civil engineering, the name iMerciv was chosen.
Upon graduation, Liu was accepted into Techno 2014 program at the Impact Centre, and said that as soon as he was accepted into the program, he contacted Arjun Mali, who became iMerciv’s co-founder with Liu. The two previously researched technology for those living with vision loss, but only began conceptualizing their technology during the program. Both were 23 years old when they founded iMerciv.
iMerciv will use the $100,000 grand prize to increase BuzzClip sales and help with production costs of a new product. According to Liu, the money from the competition will help the company expand their presence in Europe and Asia.
It was a personal connection that drove the co-founders to empower and help individuals who are partially sighted or blind. Liu’s father suffers from inoperable glaucoma, and Mali’s family has been supporting a blind orphanage and school in India for decades. “People with vision loss are hugely underserved,” said Liu in an email to The Varsity.
The ‘ah-ha’ moment for the two came after consulting with users and mobility trainers for the blind, and discovering obstacles at head level are a major challenge for individuals with vision loss.
Despite the company’s current success, iMerciv faced challenges in advertising and manufacturing. “We were not able to market to our target audience through traditional media so we had to come up with new ways to reach end users,” said Liu. The two were able to navigate this challenge by attending conferences and utilizing online communities.
Manufacturing the BuzzClip was a time-consuming and costly process. Liu and Mali advise entrepreneurs to “look into marketing strategies earlier on, even before the product is ready” and to “plan ahead for manufacturing cost and time and then multiply both by 3x when you do your first batch of production.”
Despite the challenges, Liu fondly remembers shipping out the first batch of the BuzzClip. “It was one of the most fulfilling moments to see our hard work finally coming to fruition,” he said.
A second product is currently underway at iMerciv with pilot tests set to begin in 2018. “All I can say is that it will be a navigation system for the blind and it will be a game changer,” said Liu.