iMerciv is helping people with vision loss gain more independence, an idea that won the Toronto-based startup $100,000 at the TELUS annual small business contest last night.
Co-founder Bin Liu beat out two other finalists and thousands of other Canadian entrepreneurs to snag one of the largest pitch competition prizes in the country.
“We asked ourselves, is the money a game changer? And for Bin, that money is absolutely a game changer,” said Arlene Dickinson, CEO of District Ventures and Dragons’ Den star. Dickinson was one of the five judges that ultimately crowned iMerciv as the winner.
Born out of a University of Toronto incubator, iMerciv is a smart wearables company co-founded by Liu and Arjun Mali three years ago. Both have a personal story for what inspired them to help the visually impaired: Liu’s father has vision loss from inoperable glaucoma, while Mali’s family has supported a blind orphanage in India for years.
Their first product— the BuzzClip—is a small, discreet wearable device that helps people with vision loss avoid obstacles and collisions.
“There are over 300 million visually impaired individuals in the world… And the market doesn’t really exist for mobility and navigation devices,” said Liu.
Clipped onto a shirt, the BuzzClip uses ultrasound technology to alert the wearer when objects are two-metres away by buzzing. When the wearer moves away from the obstacle, the buzzing stops.
Dickinson said the BuzzClip can address a real world need—and fast.
“You knew right away that Bin had considered something in a marketplace that wasn’t being addressed. He was thinking about helping people,” she said. “We saw the $100,000 dollars could really make a difference, and could make that difference the most quickly.
Mobility products currently on the market for the visually impaired are oversized or overpriced, said Liu. The high cost of more portable devices makes getting around independently unaffordable for many people living with visual impairments—especially those in developing countries.
The BuzzClip solves that challenge with a $249 alternative, a price that can be subsidized by government programs all over the world.
The TELUS pitch contest also doled out $50,000 in additional prizes, including $10,000 to the two pitch competition finalists: Flashfood and JamStack.
Flashfood is food waste reduction startup in Toronto that connects shoppers with discounted, surplus food at grocery stores before it goes bad.
Josh Domingues launched the Toronto-based company with the goal of reducing Canada’s astronomical $31 billion in annual food waste. To date, the Flashfood app has diverted 10,000 meals that would have ended up in a landfill.
Chris Prendergast designed JamStack to help electric guitar enthusiasts—like himself—play and record quality sound anywhere. The portable speaker is billing itself as the world’s first attachable guitar amplifier with smartphone-enabled effects, tuning, looping and recording. The Toronto company has surpassed half a million in sales since launch.
Although all finalists had innovative and impressive companies, Dickinson attributed Liu’s win to his vision for international expansion.
“He has this Canadian innovation and is already thinking about how he could take it global, and he is putting ideas and people in place to make that happen. You would think the company is far bigger than two people,” she said.
The device is being sold in 16 countries, including Canada and the United States. iMerciv has its eye on India too where the company is currently running a research program hoping to help the nearly six million people visually impaired in the country.
Now charged with $100,000, Liu said iMerciv will use the cash to upgrade internal infrastructure including the customer management system and fulfillment system. The money will also support hiring a dedicated team member who can work in Europe, the company’s current largest market with 10 countries.
Liu said iMerciv is also planning on launching another product next year that can integrate with the BuzzClip and help with navigation.