Company of the Month – WeWALK
WeWALK is a company transforming the outlook for people with visual impairments across the world. The team behind the WeWALK smart cane embraces innovation, not only in designing for mobility of people with visual impairments, but in their approach to fundraising. As they prepare to close a fundraising drive that is, in part, powered by crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, we spoke to Co-founder and CEO Gökhan Meriçliler, and Head of R&D Jean Marc Feghali.
Reimagining a 100-year-old device
WeWALK was formed to create better mobility tools for society.
“Mobility is key to everything that we do, to integrating in society, to seeking employment, seeking education or leisure. And, simply, visually impaired people really haven’t been able to experience enough independent mobility. The tools that are commercially available are really quite primitive. The white cane is a great device that we’ve used for many years. It’s great for telling you what’s on the ground in front of you, but it doesn’t tell you much more than that,” says Jean Marc.
After patenting their unique combination of hardware and software in 2019, the team’s smart cane went straight on sale when the company formed in 2020, and they’ve been going from strength to strength ever since.
The smart cane is so elegant in its simplicity, that you might wonder why it wasn’t developed sooner. A device mounted at the handle of an otherwise standard white cane, suddenly opens up myriad possibilities, outside of simply feeling the ground directly in front of the user. Sensors can alert the user to obstacles like overhanging branches, and via the accessible app, the user can plan their route and receive directions via the cane, without having to hold a smartphone in their other hand.
Design from the bottom-up
A number of the founding and senior team have their own personal, as well as professional, experience of visual impairments. Jean Marc, for example, has the rare genetic condition Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), and completed a PhD at Imperial College London in visually impaired mobility. Gökhan has a background in assistive technology and previously founded a software company using audio description to make books and films more accessible to the visually impaired.
Jean Marc explains that this depth of experience in the team has allowed them to design from the ground-up, with the user’s perspective at the forefront:
“Our experience allows us to build a piece of technology that comes from requirements, rather than the market as a whole. We’ve gone bottom-up, rather than top-down, if you like. Instead of looking at competitors, and trying to find gaps in the market, we’ve simply looked at gaps in our own experiences, and built the technology to fit those requirements. We’ve asked ourselves ‘What do we need to be able to live better lives?’, and built it.”
The successful approach has been recognised from the start. Amazon Startup of the Year and Time Magazine Best Invention are just a couple of the high profile awards the team have received.
Some WeWALK users speak about their positive experience in this testimonial video.
Routes to market
The device has also caught the attention of users and support organisations across the globe. Thanks to an early manufacturing partnership with electronics manufacturer Vestel (who were also early investors), the company launched with the device ready to sell, and took a two-pronged approach to sales.
B2C sales, through their website and marketplaces like Amazon, allow anyone to buy a smart cane (and WeWALK already as thousands of users from more than 60 countries). At the same time, the team is increasingly focusing on building partnerships that allow them to reach users through a B2B2C model. They have already partnered with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), CNIB (in Canada) and Vision Australia, amongst other nonprofit and educational bodies. They are also teaming up with health insurance providers – they have partnered with German company Barmer, and are in discussions with a number of other global insurance companies to cover the costs of the smart cane for their customers.
Through this focus on partnerships, the team hopes to reach many more of the 253 million visually impaired people globally, as well as 700 million elderly people facing mobility challenges, by making it more accessible and affordable to the end user.
Partnering for development
The importance of partnership is not only in being able to access that estimated £18.6bn market. A number of partnerships are also behind exciting developments the team are working on with the product.
These include working with Microsoft AI and Vision Australia to enhance the tool’s potential for supporting the work of specialists that work with people with visual impairments to improve and maintain mobility. A partnership with Imperial and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) also delivered a proof of concept for an indoor positioning system. And that partnership has progressed to another project, with £1.7million funding from Innovate UK, to explore how, with the addition of cameras and other sensors, computer vision could be used to further improve mobility.
Gökhan credits much of this success in forming partnerships with the decision to base the company in London:
“The potential for innovation and growth, as well as a strong focus on equality, diversity, and inclusion, were strong motivators for our UK headquarters. Our research and development projects, particularly those backed by UKRI, have allowed us to develop a much-extended product roadmap. This is similarly the case for our partnerships with Imperial College London and the RNIB. We hope to reach Europe, the US, and the world from London, facilitated through the UK’s leading international trade presence, and thanks to support from organisations such as the MedCity, London&Partners and Department for International Trade (DIT).”
As well as their key partnerships and grant-winning projects, investment has been key to the success of the business so far. During their incubation period in 2019, they used crowdfunding to launch the business, then had a successful seed funding round in April 2020, with £600k investment.
They kicked off 2022 with their latest investment round, and in January pitched to a panel of investors at a MedCity Investment Hub pitching event. That pitch led to investment from a number of high net worth individuals.
“The experience of the MedCity pitching event was awesome. After Covid, it was one of the first opportunities to come face-to-face with investors. The conversations, training and practice sessions we had as part of the process really played a critical role in the success of this investment round,” says Gökhan.
Finally, they’re finishing off this investment round by returning to crowdfunding. Their campaign on Crowdcube has already seen them tip over their target £1.5million in this funding round, and, at time of publishing, there’s still time for investments – the campaign closes at the end of 04 August 2022.
“It’s an exciting time for us. Exceeding our target of £1.5 million will really enable us to further develop our product and expand our global reach. It also helps us with our wider mission to raise awareness of accessibility and mobility issues globally, so we’re really optimistic about what the next couple of years will bring.”
Find out more: wewalk.io