Towards an inclusive society: Singapore-based startups that are building solutions for people with disabilities
The Southeast Asian (SEA) tech startup ecosystem can play a crucial role in building a more inclusive society for people with disabilities through the innovation that they create. By helping people with disabilities and their caregiver perform their daily routine, startups are even able to help them seize opportunities that are otherwise barred from them.
In order to achieve that goal, collaboration with different parties is encouraged to help startups access their potential users –and get a better understanding of their needs.
SG Enable, a Singapore government agency that is dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities and building an inclusive society, is an example of an institution that includes working with startups in their activities.
“A key area of SG Enable’s work is to raise awareness about assistive technology and its affordances, as well as support innovations for persons with disabilities because technology is a key enabler for persons with disabilities to learn, work, and live independently,” explains Ron Loh, Director, Enablers Development, SG Enable, in an email interview with e27.
Loh says that assistive technology used to be primarily specialised products. The good news is that mainstream tech providers have been incorporating accessibility into their product design, but there is still room for improvements.
“For example, speech-to-text (STT) applications and virtual assistant technology are now seen as common accessibility features that are built into mainstream consumer products such as smartphones … But there remain gaps that have yet to be filled. SG Enable has our pulse on the ground and we gather problem statements from the disability community during engagements with stakeholders,” Loh continues.
Of all the initiatives that SG Enable is doing, one that strongly involves the startup community is The Enabling Lives Initiative (ELI) Grant.
“It brings together the best ideas from the community of non-profit organisations, social enterprises and innovators (including startups) to create scalable, meaningful solutions for persons with disabilities,” Loh explains.
“This grant has its roots in the Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative (TBELI) Grant, which supported more than 40 projects between 2015 and 2020 with committed funding of more than S$16 million addressing cross-cutting disability issues such as Data and Technology, Transition Management and Caregiver Support. These include projects by startups such as SPARK by Movinc and Project QuietStorm by Wika Media,” he gives further explanation.
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In this listicle, e27 looks at the Singapore-based startups that working to provide solutions for elderly people, people with disabilities, and their caregivers.
These startups –Enabler, TagTeam Technologies and XCLR8 Technologies– have received support from Singtel Future Makers, a capacity building programme for startups and enterprises focusing on cultivating social innovation to transform the lives of the vulnerable in the community and as well as support the social service ecosystem. Meanwhile, Wika Media was supported by SG Enable’s Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiatives.
Even before the pandemic hits, many deaf children struggle to access formal education –and this is the problem that Wika Media aims to address.
The startup builds solutions to help deaf students access education and entertainment, whether they enrol in a formal school for special needs students or homeschooled. For older users, the solutions that they build are aimed to help with skills development which is a crucial element of economic and social inclusion.
As with many innovations, the inspiration for Wika Media solutions came from the co-founders’ own personal experience.
“One of Wika co-founder’s siblings is deaf, so she partly inspired and informed our product designs,” says Wika Media co-founder Roland Benzon.
“Product development was iterative; we first developed an app and set-top box for displaying subtitles or captions. But as we demonstrated the prototype to test users, we learned that the hearing world’s presumption that captions are enough is misguided,” he continues.
The team learned that for deaf people, sign language is considered as their first language.
“In developing countries, sign language is the only language for many deaf people, since many have no access to deaf schools, hence, they cannot read captions,” Benzon explains.
This learning eventually led to the birth of Project QuietStorm which saw the team producing content –in the form of captions or sign language videos– to make video content accessible to the deaf. The project has received the support of Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative.
“We have filed patents for our inclusive innovations. Better yet, all of our solutions have been preliminarily tested by more than 100 people, most of whom are deaf,” Benzon says.
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Founded by Benzon, Cynthia Dayco, and Vic Icasas, Wika Media has been self-funding its business, in addition to raising an incubation investment from Mediacorp.
In 2019, Wika Media was named as one of the Judge’s Choice company, representing Singapore in the TOP100 2019.
This year, the company intends to soft-launch its Vernocular service, a streaming service that augments movies, TV shows and educational videos by delivering video-synchronised closed captions and/or sign language content.
XCLR8 Technologies is also one example of a startup in which innovation was inspired by the co-founder’s personal experience.
“Several years ago, while back in Australia for Christmas Day, my mother had a severe stroke. Having to return to Singapore shortly after, it was extremely difficult to be part of the caregiver circle,” co-founder Lincoln Dacy explains to e27. “It made me think about how we could use technology to help people recovering from injury have better access to physical rehabilitation services, and the family members involved in the caregiving circle remotely.”
There are reasons why it can be difficult to access physical rehabilitation post-injury or -surgery, from limited mobility to the financial burden that comes with needing time off work, which applies to both caregivers and patients. Hospitals and healthcare institutions are also under increasing pressure to reduce costs and patient waiting times while providing better methods of care.
This is what led XCLR8 Technologies to create Rebee, wearable sensors and apps that aim to enable patients access to affordable physical rehabilitation in their own time and place.
Dacy says that customer feedback plays a critical role in their software development process, where they are working with senior citizens. The challenge that comes with working with senior citizens is that they tend to have low tech capabilities, pushing the startup to balance between creating an easy-to-use solution that does not sacrifice the provision of critical information.
“It makes our product development process a highly dynamic process that incorporates a high level of customer feedback. We develop the new features and exercise programmes, test with our beta customer groups, seek feedback, and make iterations then repeat the process,” he says.
XCLR8 has received S$20,000 (US$ ) grants from the Singtel Future Makers programme which the company used towards the development of its Android app. It has also received S$50,000 (US ) in a grant from the Singapore HealthTech Consortium for development of its next-generation advanced motion sensors.
Co-founded by Dacy, Claus Nestmann, and Xiyu Wei, the company is run by a team of nine that consists of web and app developers, orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, and business development executives.
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This year, XCLR8 plans to continue its pilot programmes in Singapore with different healthcare institutions. It will also develop strategic corporate partnerships in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
Despite taking inspiration from games such as Pokemon Go and Candy Crush –and dating app such as Tinder– TagTeam is doing a serious work that can help impact its users’ livelihood.
The startup points out that seniors and people with disabilities often struggle to find employment to support their lives. So it builds a platform called Tictag that aims to empower this segment by getting them involved in sorting, classifying, and labelling data for various AI platforms.
It implements gamification principles to make completing tasks feel more exciting and fulfilling.
“Tictag crowd-sources the manual but valuable process of data annotation on a gamified app as micro-jobs and rewards users with actual cash. Seniors, underprivileged and persons with disabilities are the demographics that Tictag aims to onboard as they benefit the most from these micro-jobs,” Keeve Quah, Co-Founder of TagTeam Technologies, explains.
Since September 2020, the startup says that it has incorporated a subsidiary in South Korea, secured a big client for an image recognition use case involving recyclable objects, completed successful social media campaigns, grown its team, and launched on the Google Play Store.
It is also close to securing its seed funding round.
“We’ve secured the Enterprise Singapore Startup SG Founder Grant in 2019, a grant from the accelerators and competitions we’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. We’re now in the midst of our seed funding round and we’re closing our round very soon,” Quah says.
TagTeam was co-founded by Kevin Quah, Keeve Quah, Jin Lee, and Yihang Low.
When asked about their major plans for 2021, TagTeam reveals how their plans are being split according to the location of their operations. For their Singapore team, there will be a greater focus on clients and users acquisitions as well as a partnership with various organisations, from universities to non-profits. As for its South Korea team, the focus will be more on talents and clients acquisition.
The next startup in our listicle is Enabler, which is run by people with disability. The company is led by multi-award winning social entrepreneur and 2014 ACT Young Australian of the Year Huy Nguyen.
As for the problem that the startup aims to solve, it is strongly related to the ageing population of Singapore, which is expected to reach two million people by 2030.
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“Approximately 13.3 per cent of Singaporean seniors also have a disability, and 60,000 seniors in Singapore have mobility issues. As a result, there are not enough workers skilled in supporting people with disability to meet demand,” explains Huy Nguyen, CEO at Enabler (Australia and Singapore).
“Singapore is relatively new to disability inclusion, and care responsibilities have traditionally fallen to family members. Being a caregiver is stressful and emotionally draining, and the needs of people with disabilities are complex. Workers need to be adequately prepared for the job to reduce the risk of burnout,” he continues.
What Enabler offers is a solution to rapidly upskill new workers by delivering 3D simulation modules to workers via mobile app. It uses realistic 3D simulations to help users practise their skills without acquiring additional resources.
“Our unique training method is able to combine learning and assessment of communication skills, technical skills, and procedural skills into short, punchy and engaging training modules,” Nguyen explains.
“Each of Enabler’s scenarios and virtual characters is built from the real-life experiences of people with disability and the elderly. Our inspiration and motivation are drawn from our personal experiences and challenges. Our vision is a world where people with disability and the elderly have the quality support and care they need to participate in society and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives,” he adds.
The startup has completed a successful pilot with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) which was enabled through a grant from raiSE SG.
“Our goal for 2021 is to tackle the most pressing topics and pain points of our caregiver and community nurse workforce. We actively seek resources to build topics in Personal Protection Equipment, Pressure Sore Prevention and Management and Falls Management. These topics have been requested to us by our partner KTPH and the greater community,” Nguyen says.
“Rolling out these topics will reduce or even eliminate the need for community nurses to provide in-home training, saving hospitals money and staffing resources. The convenient app-based digital delivery will also make this knowledge available to all Singaporeans, not just those who are able to access training by the hospital,” he closes.
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