Across the first season of Shark Tank India, only 15-odd startups have reached the heady heights of receiving a crore or more from the show’s seven judges.

While each of these brave teams of entrepreneurs has proven themselves with innovative, pathbreaking business ideas, but few have a story as deeply touching as the founders of Thinkerbell Labs.

Conceptualized on the campus of BITS Pilani Goa, Thinkerbell largely focuses on creating products that ‘improve learning outcomes for the visually impaired.’ With major high profile investors such as Anand Mahindra behind the company, Thinkerbell has risen from an engineering college project to a globally recognized innovator; one that has changed thousands of lives and continues to bridge the gap for children and adults with visual impairments.

On Shark Tank India, the company was chosen by Anupam Mittal, Namita Thapar, and Peyush Bansal, to the tune of Rs. 1.05 crore at 3% equity. Now that’s some confident investing!

We spoke to founder and CEO Sanskriti Dawle during the final week of Shark Tank India, discussing Thinkerbell’s origins, how their product ANNIE works, and the challenges they face while making the world a better place.

What is ANNIE, and how does it work?

So it’s a box, roughly 8×8 inches—it’s an electronic device. It has modules for reading, writing, and typing in Braille. Just like a laptop has output in the form of a display and input in the form of a keyboard and trackpad, ANNIE has output in the form of refreshable Braille.

Tactile dots go up and down to form different characters, and you learn how to read those characters and what they mean. It also has a keyboard, a standard braille keyboard, and also a stylus to interact with the system.

Powering it all is ANNIE—a voice tutor that teaches children how to read, write, and type—while providing lessons, stories, and a lot of braille-designed learning content. It’s much like a video game!

What were ANNIE’s early days like?

The first time, it was just an alphabet box that displayed ‘A-B-C-D-E-F-G…’, just those characters while playing the song. We had teenagers using it, just glued to it, playing it over and over again for more than an hour. Firstly, this was shocking because teenagers are rarely interested in anything. Second, something as basic as the alphabet; why would we glue to that?

I think at that point, we were doing some research into multimodal interfaces for the effectiveness of teaching under human-computer interaction. So it was more from a research perspective that we were looking into that. And you’re trying to see whether multi-model interfaces are more effective or less effective. What difference does it really make? That was what you are trying to measure.

We realized that, okay, there is some gap somewhere because of which children are not getting to interact with technology independently. So that is the novelty factor one. And second, just having that command over the alphabet or braille, as a language in general, that one would expect by, say, kindergarten, because typically by class one or two, literacy is a given.

The team of Thinkerbell Labs on Shark Tank India
The team of Thinkerbell Labs on Shark Tank India

A story from your start-up journey that’s close to your heart?

I have a story from our first smart class in India, the first ANNIE smart class in Ranchi. The year after we had installed the ANNIE smart class in Ranchi, the enrollment in the school shot up massively because people in the nearby villages had heard this thing that ‘the government has introduced some technology for the children. So, if my child learns from it, he will get better’.

It’s a very basic way of thinking about it, but just having the hope and awareness that there is something that my child can do and will do and accomplish, especially in extremely rural underserved areas. That is a mindset change. And so for me personally, that was a big moment.

Realizing that some work I was a part of resulted in a mindset change where people would have earlier thought, ‘this kid, what are their prospects really? Let them sit at home now they’re sending them to school because they think there is some opportunity for them.’

I think it’s a very touching moment.

What makes it hard for visually impaired children to learn?

For example, if you’re trying to learn about photosynthesis in school, you’re trying to understand the mechanism of chlorophyll and how it converts sunlight into energy for plants. At that time, if you’re wondering, ‘hey, is this letter an E or is it an I or is it H or N?’, then you’re losing the point because you’ll get left behind. Not due to lack of intellect, but because of difficulties at the literacy stage.

Some children are lucky enough to have access to the right resources and somewhere they’re just sort of trying to make the most of what they possibly can. That has been a guiding principle for us with ANNIE.

Once the child gets access to an ANNIE they will be able to use any and all tools at their disposal. Like I mean the world is certainly moving towards a more inclusive set-up where we see more inclusion, more braille whether it’s elevator buttons or it’s medicine cotton or things like that. We’ll see more Braille but then literacy has to grow accordingly and has to grow significantly so that’s the future we envision where it’s not so much dependent on your luck.

How does ANNIE make it into classrooms?

If it’s a government school, they’re typically funded by the local district social welfare officer or some similar authority. We tend to approach the collector or someone in the local government.

In the private sector, actually, I think that sort of picked up in a very organic way. I mean, we’ve had schools that have purchased Annie sponsors using their own funds. We had schools that have requested us for a demo, and then they’ve gone to pitch to their own CSR networks to find the funding for Annie Smart class.

To a certain extent, if you’re a private entity running a school like this, there is always a certain extra level of enthusiasm that the school authorities have. So they do go out of their way to try and find the funding for it, because, from a school perspective, it’s a force multiplier for the teachers, where one teacher could teach only one child at a time.

Suddenly, one teacher can, based on the strength of the Annie Smart class, teach ten children at a time, twenty children at a time. So it’s a no brainer from the school perspective, certainly.

Thinkerbell Labs held the highest-investment record on Shark Tank India for quite a while this season. How did that success feel, and what was your experience like being on the show?

I think I agree that it really entered the mainstream phenomenon. People on my WhatsApp groups are using Shark Tank stickers as memes!

For us, being on the show was a very unique experience for us, like running a startup and then, it’s a TV show, right? So the ‘set life’ thing was a whole different ball game. I don’t have any particular words to describe, except that this is another new thing in the startup journey, I suppose.

Prathamesh demonstrates how Thinkerbell Labs’ ANNIE product is used.
Prathamesh demonstrates how Thinkerbell Labs’ ANNIE product is used.

Your pitch involved a young boy named Prathamesh, who demonstrated his experience with ANNIE on live national television. How did you meet him?

And as far as Prathamesh is concerned, we met him way back in 2019. His school had actually purchased an ANNIE smart class with their own funds. And so when we had set up the training and deployment, he was very enthusiastic even at that point. He was very eager to learn. He’s very cute right now, but he was even cuter back then! We had stayed in touch because even during the pandemic, his mom is really proactive about his learning and full credit to her for the confident child that he is.

So, we sort of stayed in touch. When we saw this opportunity to come on Shark Tank, one challenge we have as a niche company, when you make a product that most people are not going to use, they probably are not going to relate with it. It’s one thing for me to say, hey, this product does X, Y and Z, but it’s quite something else for an actual user at that.

He had already been using an Annie during the pandemic as well. So I guess that really helped him to talk about what it means for him.

As a successful young CEO, what kind of advice would you give a budding entrepreneur hoping to make it big?

I am gonna repeat my favourite piece of advice that I received from a college senior. If you’re going to do something big, don’t have a plan B. That’s my favourite piece of advice that I will see because if you’re always hedging your risks, you’re not giving it your all.

Everything has its own risk in life anyway, and the risk of hedging too much is that you might lose out on truly creating something big and making a big change. I guess the risk, you pick.

Peyush Bansal, Namita Thapar and Anupam Mittal with the team of Thinkerbell Labs
Peyush Bansal, Namita Thapar and Anupam Mittal with the Thinkerbell Labs team.

What’s the future looking like for Thinkerbell Labs?

We’re only just getting started. I think we spent quite a bit of time getting the R&D right because the tech innovation itself is huge. So getting that right was our initial task, and now that has a good platform for ANNIE. Our next challenge is going to be sort of getting it to every child that needs one, whether it’s in India or internationally.

For this particular thing, I am really grateful to Shark Tank for giving it a mass audience in India, because while India has a great need for a product like ANNIE, you need a lot of buying from a lot of people to actually make that solution happen. So I think Shark Time is going to go a long way in creating that mass awareness.

We want to become the world leader in inclusive education. So, right now, we’re focusing on early literacy and numeracy via ANNIE. But we want to increase that to the best-connected learning experience for the entire K12 sector, for visually impaired students to begin with.

The special needs education space is around 15 percent of the global ed-tech market; this is the broader space we see ourselves in. Because the market for ramps is not the number of physically challenged people. The market for ramps is the number of buildings that are there because that’s the world we’re moving towards. So from that perspective, the entire education sector is a target, and we’re only just getting started.

(Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Networks)