Wayfinder Angel is proof that not every entrepreneurial idea lands funding in what has become a pretty hot market.
At best, Wayfinder is a revolutionary application of existing communications and sensor technologies that can help the blind get around better on foot. At worst, it is an interesting idea that its sponsors say can't attract the $250,000 in start-up funds needed to demonstrate its viability because early-stage investors aren't so interested in what they see as do-gooder projects, or "social enterprise."
Then again, a lot of smart guys have lost lots of other people's money and some of their own on "sure things," whether medical technology or cool software applications.
Wayfinder Angel is that intersection of technology, virtual vision and heart.
Wayfinder combines GPS, sensors and communication technologies linked to a remote video desk and controller. It functions as an "angel on the shoulder" of blind folks who are trying to navigate a new area, around a snow pile or construction site that can prove daunting-to-dangerous.
CEO Michael Hanson, who is blind, also is a lawyer and author of "Unseen Trail," a book about his solo hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2010, thanks to GPS, courage and ingenuity.
"Wayfinder Angel will be kind of like OnStar for blind people," Hanson said recently. "It should eliminate one of the barriers to employment for more blind people."
Hanson's co-founder is Harlan Jacobs, founder of Genesis Business Centers in 1993, an incubator for many emerging businesses over the years.
Jacobs and Hanson have put together a plan that customizes and integrates some existing technology that would allow workers in a control center using video technology and GPS to guide blind users as they navigate new terrain. No fully integrated prototype exists, but they envision Wayfinder using a special pair of sunglasses that has a video camera lens and a two-way communication link to an operations center staffed with personal assistants who can guide the visually impaired person on the desired route to and even inside the intended destination. Clients would pay a fee based on their monthly use of the service.
"It's a low-budget operation and still somewhat on the bench top," Jacobs said. "We'd spend $50,000 to $100,000 on lots of smartphones and adapting their camera lenses and speaker microphones to the sunglasses that have camera lenses and speaker phones … We would use off-the-shelf technology. Then we would use the rest of the money to set up a test center to develop and test communication links between a navigator at a console and the blind person."
Jacobs and Hanson have spent more than a year, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of their own money developing the technology and website, applying for a patent, and hunting for funding to scale up the model to prove it can work as a commercial operation.
"We really need a patron," Jacobs said. "Somebody who isn't just looking for a return but to do something good."
Jacobs and Hanson believe that there's a return to be made for investors, as well as societal benefits.
Nearly 80 percent of the visually impaired are unemployed and rely on social service agency benefits for subsistence, they said. The Wayfinder service and the enhanced mobility it offers could be a path to better prospects for employment and economic self-sufficiency.
The founders suggest it makes some sense for government agencies to fund the WayFinder Angel service because the investment could pay for itself in part from lower assistance payments.
But those agencies aren't charged with evaluating new technologies and putting taxpayer dollars into speculative investments.
Brad Lehrman, a veteran business lawyer, individual "angel" investor and a board member of the Minnesota Gopher Angels group of individual investors, said that even in a good investment environment, raising money isn't easy for tiny enterprises.
"A start-up that is a socially responsible venture investment reduces the pool of angel investors even further due to the perception that it may be a worthwhile cause but may not perform and earn the returns [on investment] an angel wants when they roll the dice on a fledgling business," said Lehrman, who is not involved with Wayfinder.
"There are certain 'receptor sites' that hit certain investors, and the more filters you put on a company, the harder it is to hit investors with the appropriate receptor cites. This doesn't look like a straight-return venture. I'm involved in Gopher Angels. And there's a subset of investors who joined Gopher Angels for social impact investing and that's a different kind of business plan. The subset of investors who are interested is a much smaller number. That being said, some of these companies are very interesting."
Jacobs and Hanson are just getting revved up.
"I've located an incubator program in Israel that's focused on helping the disabled to use assisted technologies especially smartphones," Jacobs e-mailed the other day. "That led to a group that's particularly focused on helping to adapt smartphones for the blind and the visually impaired. That group wishes to have Michael help to market its smartphone to the blind in the United States.
"This company is keen on the Remotely Guided Pedestrian (RGP) concept developed by Wayfinder and wishes to adapt the camera lens and the speaker/microphone on its new smartphone for the disabled to provide remote guidance services to the disabled … We are beginning a dialogue."
And these two guys are more than happy to speak with more local investors as well. It's a great purpose that taps interesting technology. Who knows. There also may be a buck to be made in here over the long term.