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A Smart Stick Puts Digitization in Service to the Blind

"It’s the best example I’ve seen of digitization. It’s a dumb device that becomes smart when it connects to all the other data and devices around it, making a real difference for the user."

Remi Philippe, Cisco Solution Architect

As cities make infrastructure more digital, a team of innovative students realized that a blind person’s white stick could become a smart stick. With mentoring and support from Cisco, they developed a prototype device to transform the urban experience for people without sight.

When devices, data, and people connect

The next wave of technological innovation will come from the connection of people, process, data, and things to the Internet: digitization. For students today, the opportunities to create the “next big thing” are daunting and limitless.

A group of Cisco France employees involved in Corporate Social Responsibility hoped to spark innovation and support students’ entrepreneurial spirit through a competitive contest and employee mentorship. A team led by Guillaume Desveaux and coordinated by Natacha Comar launched Le Défi Cisco, a challenge to apply technology to social and environmental issues.

Students in an entrepreneurship class at University of Lorraine in Nancy, France were stumped when their professor told them about Le Défi Cisco. No one had an idea, until Lucie d’Alguerre thought of her uncle, who is blind.

She imagined a connected city that could transmit information to the white cane many blind and visually impaired people carry. Her professor connected her with four other Cisco Networking Academy students to develop a pitch for the contest.

A formidable team of engineers

Thirty teams competed in the first round of Le Défi Cisco. Florian Esteves and Mathieu Chevalier of Team Handisco took the lead in developing the technology. Lucie used her connections to build partner relationships with the City of Nancy and Valentin Haüy, an association for the blind. Jonathan Donnard managed communications with Cisco, while Nicolas Frizzarin took responsibility for the financials and the business plan.

“Our idea is to really integrate all current technologies inside one single cane,” says Mathieu. “That’s where the innovation lies, to really allow blind people to move more independently but especially more safely within our cities.”

One of six teams to advance to the final round, Team Handisco met weekly with their technology and business development mentors from Cisco to develop their social innovation. Remi Philippe, a Cisco solution architect involved with the startup community in Paris, guided the team as a technology mentor, and Remi Sedilot, a Cisco sales manager, advised them in business plan development. They were impressed by the team’s collaboration.

“They’re engineers. They got excited about connecting the city with 5000 access points,” explains Remi Philippe. “We pushed them to define investment, timelines, and look at potential competitors like Google and JCDecaux who are looking into connecting cities. A startup has limited resources. No other company is focusing on the white stick, so they could get traction and solve a true problem using existing infrastructure.”

A true social innovation

A traditional white stick uses physical contact to convey information: It only “sees” what it can touch. The Sherpa uses proximity captors with ultrasonic waves like those in a car bumper that emit a sound when backing up. The waves sense a wider spectrum of area and convey the information to the user through vibration. GPS technology provides local guidance, prioritized for real time conditions and a sightless traveler.

“I’ve seen 50 or 60 startup pitches, and no one did anything like this,” says Remi Philippe. “It’s the best example I’ve seen of digitization. It’s a dumb device that becomes smart when it connects to all the other data and devices around it to make a real difference for the user.”

Cities have begun to include tagging systems as part of the municipal infrastructure, and making the data available in an open system. The smart stick gathers data from traffic lights, bus locations, road work sites, crosswalks, and even weather conditions to provide real-time navigation.

Tagged sensors at shops convey what the shop sells, where the entrance is, and business hours, making it easier for a blind person to discover a business district. The team plans to include a security alert system to connect the stick owner to police, in case of emergency.

In the final round of Le Défi Cisco, the Handisco team received the top honor and a €70,000 award.

“During the presentation to the judges, everyone said this is really innovative because the white stick has remained unchanged in the last 20 years, despite a period of profound change in society due to the Internet,” recalls Remi Sedilot.

From student to startup

What began as a class project has become an innovative startup enterprise. The five students barely knew each other and now they are business partners. With the prize money from Le Défi, they founded Handisco and began to pitch the company to investors.

The team has developed a sustainable distribution and pricing model to move into other markets such as the elderly. Following the competition, the group received the Pepite Award, a National Prize for Innovation from the French Ministry of Education, and were honored to meet with then-French President François Hollande.

Remi Sedilot believes they won the contest and will continue to succeed because they are solving a real problem with a true innovation that builds on existing infrastructure. “They were very precise and consistent about what they would like to do,” he says. “They are proposing to help blind people gain autonomy and benefit from services created for other purposes.”

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