Adapt, Innovate and Succeed - The ViewPlus & SBIR Partnership
ViewPlus Technologies, Inc.Corvallis, OR 97333
The story of ViewPlus Technologies starts with a minor eye operation gone awry. One day in 1988, John A. Gardner was a physics professor at Oregon State University. The next, he was blind.
When he returned to work, he encountered enormous barriers. For one, he could no longer understand graphically displayed data, like diagrams and structured mathematics. For a renowned solid-state physicist, this was no small problem. Alas, the solutions that existed tools to render data comprehensible through touch and sound were scarce and incomplete. So, calling upon the age-old maxim of entrepreneurship - if you want something done right, do it yourself - Gardener resolved to close the communications gap between himself and his sighted colleagues himself.
In 1991, with sponsoring from the National Science Foundation, he kicked off a research program at Oregon State. The work progressed steadily, racking up international acclaim and raising the possibility of commercial success. In 1996, this possibility became a reality, when Gardner founded ViewPlus to make science and math more accessible to people with sensory disabilities. The company’s signature product, its Tiger line of tactile graphic embossers that print both ink and braille, began shipping in 2000.
Still, there was the issue of money. “No venture capitalist is interested in giving money to a Braille-embosser,” jokes Gardner, given the limited market for adaptive technologies. Yet the professor’s family and friends weren’t as blind to the opportunity, and so bankrolled the firm in its early years.
Then, in 2003, Gardner applied for and received a SBIR award. That grant paved the way for 14 more (nine in Phase I and six in Phase II), each of which helped ViewPlus to perfect or develop new uses for its products. One example: SBIR funds from the NSF and NIH formed the base of the IVEO tactile-audio system, which converts visual documents into a format you can touch or hear. Today, several software programs are based on the IVEO Hands-on Learning System. Says Gardner, “The SBIR Program is an important piece of our business innovation … Thanks to the SBIR grants, ViewPlus has been able to develop really innovative products.”
The SBIR Program also helped ViewPlus to establish a range of partnerships, allowing it to integrate its innovations seamlessly into mainstream IT products. For example, the company receives development support from Microsoft as part of the Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendor Program, and has incorporated Hewlett Packard inkjet into its new ink and braille products. In 2005, ViewPlus joined HP’s Assistive Technology Partner program. ViewPlus also has collaborated with the American Physical Society, the world’s leading publisher of physics literature, to make its journals blind-friendly.
Today, ViewPlus is a major international innovator in adaptive technologies. Supported by more than 40 employees and annual sales of almost $5 million, it’s one of the largest enterprises in the blindness industry. Gardner projects significant growth in the market for learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism, and ADHD a market 10 times the size of the ocular one. In fact, years ago, some of these educational vendors turned him down when he was seeking business for his fledging firm. He smiles. “Now, we’re taking market share away from them right and left.”