The room lights with gleaming smiles and a fervor of enthusiasm as you enter. The next batch of assembly line is set to begin in a few minutes and the room is abuzz with activity within moments. The tiny components swiftly, yet meticulously pass the hands of those with hearing aids tightly twitched to their ear. As close to 250 such components are carefully crafted and assembled into a pair of haptic shoes, those in the assembly unit share a satiated smile. It is this very product assembled in a small room in Secunderabad, Hyderabad that gives vision to millions of visually challenged across the world to navigate through the sense of touch.
Started in 2011, Ducere Technologies has pioneered the world’s first haptic feedback smart shoe. Haptic feedback uses an individual’s sense of touch to convey information to, and about the user through patterns of vibration.
Founded by Krispian Lawrence, a graduate from the University of Michigan and Anirudh Sharma, a graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the company went on to develop a product that assimilated product and process innovation to bring out the best in an item of daily use — the shoe. Under the brand name Lechal (which means ‘take me along’ in Hindi), Ducere produces shoes and insoles that provide directions through vibrations for the visually challenged. Priced at $149 in the global market and at 8,699 in India, its insoles have removable sensors that are embedded with two rechargeable lithium batteries, to direct users to navigate those crowded, noisy streets through vibrations and sensations. A one-time charge produces a battery life of 30 days. The shoe can be synced to your smartphone through bluetooth via the Lechal app that uses Google Maps to provide navigational directions towards the destination you want to reach.
The shoe can withstand rain and lets you set the desired location. A left-turn will produce a vibration on your left shoe, while the right shoe will buzz when a right turn is due. The longer the vibration, the closer you are to your turn. If you still happen to miss these instructions and take the wrong route, the shoe vibrates rigorously on both feet, prompting you to take the right route again. It has about 24 international and Indian patents for Lechal.
“The visually challenged have super senses. Hence, the product revolved around an innovation that complements their existing senses, rather than replacing them,” says Lawrence, CEO of Ducere. Canes and audio devices that have been marketed for the visually challenged markets often hit a dead end because of their restricted reach and limited scope in noisy, crowded areas. However, inventing a smart shoe has combatted the problems of navigation and interaction because it can go wherever the wearer takes it. “There is no language in touch. It is tactile and intuitive. Thus, it is accessible and responsive,” adds Lawrence.
By 2014, the product eventually became an effective navigation, but not only for the visually challenged. The company decided to expand the user base by innovating further and marketing it as a product anyone could easily use. The newly introduced technology brought with it the ability to measure the steps one walked or ran, fitness levels and other metrics. Ducere now has two variants: one in terms of basic navigation and the other that comes up with data in terms of calories burnt and workout sessions, thus making it more meaningful. Along with the technology, the company has been striving to catch the attention of users by concentrating on comfort, style and appearance.
Getting in step
The idea of haptic footwear was born on a piece of paper that took almost four years to materialize into reality. Back then, with smartphones just penetrating the market and major roads missing on Google Maps, everything from designing its appearance and technology to developing a business model was a challenge. Lawrence and Sharma started the business with their savings of about 1.5 crore. “You find a problem and solve it. That forms the genesis of innovation,” says Lawrence.
By 2014, they raised around $1 million in equity and about $3 million through debt and loans within their network. Till date, about $2.7-2.8 million has been invested by the company in product development.
They then tied up with eye-institutes like LV Prasad in Hyderabad to identify the problems of the visually challenged in India. “Lechal is an innovative solution to help the visually impaired. We partnered with Ducere to explore further refinement of the haptic shoe with our patients,” says Dr Anthony Vipin Das, Consultant Ophthalmologist at LV Prasad Eye Institute. Ducere first started selling in 2014 through pre-orders. Eventually through tie-ups and collaborations with major players and local retailers, Ducere set foot in the global market and got around 30,000 pre-orders from around 107 countries across the world through their portal.
By sourcing batteries, sensors and technological equipment from different parts of India, Germany and US, Ducere started manufacturing in China. With rising volumes, the company moved its assembly unit to India, which brought down production costs, owing to India’s low cost of labour. Lawrence recalls the first shoe that Lechal came up with —bulky, heavy and ugly in appearance. From there, Lechal has come up with 30 different patterns for both men and women till date. “In comparison to the previous versions, LeChal shoes today are 400% smaller, 40% thinner and have 3-4% longer battery life,” Lawrence adds.
With production capacity rising, Ducere can now assemble about 20,000 pairs of shoes every month. Ducere made sure that with every expansion, it took home a lesson for the future. “Innovation is 99.9% failure. It is about how quickly you can fail and recover, to innovate more,” says Lawrence. After developing this technology, Lawrence realised that just getting the product out in the market was not enough. “No innovation can sustain without a proper business model,” he says. When the product failed to catch the fancy of consumers and investors, Ducere realised that their product needs to be strengthened through collaborative business partnerships.
Lawrence says that Lechal stands out from other wearables in the market because of its ability to navigate anywhere and everywhere. The shoe constantly monitors the wearer’s activity and talks back through haptic feedback, a concept that is not embedded in most wearables. With GPS navigation for your feet, the shoes or the insoles set the desired location automatically and can even keep track of your frequently travelled routes. It is an intuitive device based on handsfree navigation because the technology is embedded in the shoe and does not need the user to use any other external device with it. With 95% of their revenue coming from exports, Ducere effectively expanded their market base by tying up with local distributors in North America who further have tie-ups with retailers in local markets. In India, the company has tied up with Croma to bring the product to the mainstream market. “For your product to sell, everyone in the chain needs to be incentivised. If there is no incentive, there is no sales,” explains Lawrence. Building on this thought, Ducere decided to go after the big fish in the e-retail business and joined hands with Amazon and expects to sell around 35,000 insoles and shoes on the portal by December 2016.
For the brick and mortar business, Ducere has paired with Hi-Tec Shoes, Europe’s leading footwear brand, for co-branding and supplying insoles for Hi-Tec navigator shoes meant for hiking. The partnership has already introduced 200 Hi-Tec shoes with Lechal insoles in the market. “We expect the partnership with Ducere to create demand for Hi-Tec Navigator shoes, thereby increasing sales for all Hi-Tec products all over the world, not only in the UK,” says John van der Velden, New Technology Director at Hi-Tec Sports International, adding that the product will be launched in different markets by next month. Ducere, being a new entrant in the international market is focusing on co-branding with large players such as Hi-Tec. Once they get visibility in that arena, the company will focus on competing individually with international brands, Lawrence adds. With these strategic partnerships, Ducere has shipped close to 6,000 pairs out of India and expects to ship 30,000-35,000 pairs by December, when the product becomes available on Amazon globally in September. According to Lawrence, the company clocked revenue of $500,000 in the past three months. The company expects to be cash flow positive by December this year and that should hold it in good stead even if the second round of funding takes time to come. “Getting investment in the wearable technology sector is a challenge because the West is still leading the way when it comes to wearable technology. Additionally, developing the right kind of technology to suit the interest of consumers as well as investors is difficult,” says Hareesh Ramanna, senior vice-president, product business unit at BORQS India, an international software company that produces and invests in smart technology and wearables. With Ducere finding the right balance, it is in talks for a second round of funding.
India’s wearable technology market is still in its early days with few players and products dominating the sector. Sales in India comprise just 5-10% of Ducere’s revenues. “The wearable technology market in India is still nascent and it remains a price sensitive market; so adoption is slightly slower,” opines Sohil Shah, associate vice-president at Intellecap Impact Investment Network that invests around 50 lakh to 5 crore in wearable market startups that thrive on innovation.
Ducere, too, faced the brunt of this lag and price consciousness. “Our battle was always how do we make it cheap without compromising on the quality,” recalls Lawrence. Although the first mover’s advantage brought with it the benefit of setting the price, it also meant evangelising the concept, getting more people on board and spending money on creating awareness about the product.
Its eyes are now set on how it can increase its presence in the wearable technology market dominated by wristwatches, rings and other wearables. After realising that India is more inclined towards the shoe market and not the sole market, it is designing a software developing kit that will allow different companies to connect with the shoe through their app. “Any gaming software company, like Playstation, which wants to connect its app to the shoe, can pair up with Ducere under the software development kit,” explains Lawrence. Currently, the shoe can be connected only to the Lechal app.
According to data from industry tracker, CCS Insight, the international wearable technology market is set to grow from 84 million units in 2015, to 245 million units by 2019. “There is great opportunity for the wearable technology market to grow in India. This is due to a huge consumer base here that is becoming more and more health conscious. Consumers, today are scouting for wearable products that are not only good looking, but provide smart, real and meaningful data,” adds Shah. Hareesh, says new entrants like Ducere should also look at China closely. “In terms of traction, the Chinese market is huge and there is great scope for growth in the wearable technology market. New entrants should focus on the Chinese market and try to capture a consumer base there,” he says.
Despite no dearth of growth opportunities, challenges remain, both in terms of increasing competition and in creating awareness about the product in the market. “If there are no challenges, being an entrepreneur will be the most boring job in the world. Challenges drive further innovation,” explains Lawrence emphatically. It is this optimistic approach and the drive to foresee the future that keeps Ducere aiming for that extra mile.