Start-up (these)abilities is out to disrupt the assistive technology industry
When he was 17, Ken Chua volunteered to be an assistant teacher at a cerebral palsy centre in Singapore. It was his first interaction with persons with disabilities (PWDs). Little did he know that the experience would shape his entrepreneurial and altruistic aspirations. “It opened my eyes. I began to take more notice of things a normal person might overlook, but which are critical to a person with disabilities,” he recalls.
Today, Chua, who will be 25 in June, is co-founder and director of (these)abilities, a design and technology start-up. The company seeks to level the playing field for PWDs at work and home, in school and elsewhere. It designs and makes assistive technology products and provides consulting services to organisations that want to help the disabled community.
(these)abilities aims to disrupt the assistive technology industry, which, it finds, is lacking in innovation and creativity, and is even exploitative sometimes, as seen from the exorbitant price tags of the products available in the market. The start-up intends to introduce products that are cheap and innovative to PWDs. Beyond that, it wants to create things that can be used by everyone. “ Whatever we do [here] is about disabling disabilities through technology and design. That is the gist of (these)abilities,” Chua tells Enterprise in an interview.
The company has designed and created a keyguard for those who suffer from muscular weakness, tremors, athetosis or poor motor skills. The product can be used by those with Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy, or have suffered a stroke, Chua says. The keyguard is “50% cheaper” than those in the market and can be customised to fit any laptop or keyboard, he adds.
Safety accessory for public buses
(these)abilities has also produced the Plug- N-Play Safety System, an add-on accessory for wheelchair-accessible buses. Under Singapore’s safety regulations, WABs have only one wheelchair lot per vehicle.
The Plug-N-Play Safety System expands the wheelchair capacity of a WAB. The device has secured approval from the Land Transport Authority and was first used at the 8th Asean Para Games 2015 to transport 397 wheelchair-bound athletes to the opening ceremony. (these)abilities is in talks with public bus operators to install the device in every WAB.
The most common question people ask Chua is, “Did you set up (these)abilities because of a family member or close friend who has disabilities?” “My answer is no,” says an amused Chua. “It doesn’t mean that if I don’t [know] someone with disabilities, I cannot have a connection with them. We are people after all. I see the promise of disabling disabilities as unlocking human potential.”
Following his experience at the cerebral palsy centre, he decided to help those with disabilities. He pursued a design engineering course at the Singapore University of Techno logy and Design and did internships at aircraft manufacturer Embraer and beauty e-commerce start-up Luxola, which was bought over by LVMH-owned Sephora. All these helped him to eventually start (these)abilities.
In his final year at SUTD, Chua founded (these)abilities after meeting co-founder Christabella Irwanto. The start-up was selected to be part of Enabling Change, a social impact tech incubator programme run by local social incubator UNFRAMED and supported by Singapore Telecommunications. Last December, it received seed funding of $10,000 from the telco giant.
“When I started (these)abilities, I needed it to be a viable choice after graduating. If not, it would be foolish to jump straight into it. It has paid off,” says Chua. Without disclosing details, he adds that the company has been profitable and multiplied its seed funding more than fourfold.
One of the hotly debated topics among business leaders and thinkers alike is the purpose of business today. Proponents of share holder value maximisation argue that the business of business is business, as Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once famously said. On the other hand, critics argue that aside from profitability, a business should pursue wider social ends as part of corporate social responsibility.
Perhaps (these)abilities stands where these two ideals intersect. “We are a social enterprise. [But] we prefer to be [seen as] a business first. [Being profit-driven] helps us create better products. We will never be complacent [about] that,” says Chua.
As for the social responsibility aspect, (these)abilities makes products with and for PWDs and uses their input in the design of the gadgets as well. These volunteers work with the design team and their ideas and suggestions help solve the particular problems they face and also facilitate quicker iteration of the products. And in the process, they acquire new skills that help them become problem-solvers. “We all have fun together,” Chua says.
(these)abilities focuses mainly on designing and creating products to help those who face mobility, visual, hearing and other sensory difficulties. The demand for such products is niche, but the industry is rather fragmented, Chua observes: If [a company] makes wheelchairs, it does only that and nothing else. “It’s like one solution for one problem. That’s why the market size is small,” he says.
Inevitably, the industry suffers from price inelasticity because the incumbents can exploit demand and charge over-the top prices. In turn, they lack the incentive to innovate and use modern technology to reduce costs. And because PWDs need the products to function daily, that reinforces the status quo.
The good news is Singapore has set up SG Enable to enable and empower the dis abled. The government-led agency has an assistive technology fund that provides PWDs a subsidy of up to 90% of the cost of such devices, subject to a lifetime cap of $40,000. “While this is good, it doesn’t mean that assistive technology [products] cannot be cheaper [than what is in the market],” says Chua.
Ultimately, what (these)abilities brings to the table is the concept of universal design in its products. This brings value to everyone because anyone can use them. It also removes the stigma of disability and having to depend on assistive technology products, he adds, referring to cases of hearing-impaired people who hide their hearing aids under headphones. Production costs are also reduced because of bigger economies of scale.
The company introduces the concept of universal design on the drawing board itself, for example, producing a headphone that doubles as a hearing aid. This approach eliminates unsightly assistive technology products, often the result of a design after thought.
“This is what companies such as Apple are doing. Microsoft is starting to do [that too]. This is where (these)abilities stands,” says Chua. He adds that the company leverages modern technology such as 3D printing, cheap electronics and the Internet of Things to design and create its products.
When the products are ready to scale up, each will be spun off and produced by a separate company. (these)abilities will then get a cut from the new companies, which Chua thinks “can really make money”.
In the meantime, (these)abilities relies on consultancy work to stay afloat and bring in working capital. It approaches other organisations that have similar values and cultures, studies their inherent features and industry expertise, and comes up with suggestions on how they can further benefit the disabled community.
“We don’t reinvent the wheel. If there is already a large company that can solve a problem just by expanding its product range, we will go with that,” says Chua.
He adds that (these)abilities provides consultation on how to build an inclusive workplace environment through adaptation and technology. It also helps companies view corporate social responsibility activities as a potential profit centre.
As (these)abilities actively engages with corporates and other large institutions, it also interacts with individuals through its Reddit- like forum, called Voices, on its website. The forum allows people to share problems, solutions and opinions concerning the disabled. At the same time, Voices enables (these)abilities and other solution providers to leverage the feedback it receives to come up with better solutions for PWDs.
Chua’s vision is to make the assistive technology industry sexy. “We want to attract young budding designers, engineers and entrepreneurs to come in. Not only can they make a profit, not only is it exciting, but they are benefiting the community as well,” he says.
co-founder and director of (these)abilities
What helps you think?
Reading autobiographies. It helps me see things from the perspective of others.
What is the best advice you have received so far?
It is one thing to be successful, another to be significant.
What is your biggest regret so far?
I should have started (these)abilities earlier, to help the disabled community more.
This article appeared in the Enterprise of Issue 722 (April 4) of The Edge Singapore.