Fueling Innovation Kim Lachance Shandrow  | March 27, 2018

How This Startup is Bridging the Hearing Gap

There are an estimated one million deaf individuals in the United States. One Texas-based startup is working to give them a voice.

KinTrans, headquartered in Dallas, is developing real-time, smart sign language translation software that automatically takes sign language and transforms it into spoken words.

“Everything we do today at KinTrans is about bridging the silence between physical and verbal communication,” said KinTrans co-founder and CEO Mohamed Elwazer. “This makes the impossible possible through a convenient and culturally consistent technology solution.”

The startup’s innovative technology — designed for companies to provide effective two-way communication between deaf and non-deaf individuals — automates sign language interpretation for the business environment. The team’s goal: “To transform the way people communicate life’s stories.”

Elwazer launched KinTrans in 2013 out of a Dubai-based startup accelerator program with co-founder Catherine Bentley, a social enterprise expert. Their technology uses a 3D motion-sensing video camera that effectively “watches” sign language flow from a person’s hands. The system then translates it into spoken words through a speaker. The words can also be read on a connected digital screen. The all-in-one system, available for pre-order, comes with its own touchscreen, speakers and microphone.

In the broader picture, KinTrans’ founders hope their technology will enable businesses to improve customer service experiences — and, most importantly, to make their offerings deaf-accessible — at the point of service and beyond.

The young company has shown early promise. And people have taken notice. The startup took part the 1776 Challenge Cup in Austin, Texas, back in August — which pitted a dozen promising tech startups tackling complex, regulated challenges against each other in front of industry leaders. And KinTrans won. They’ll be competing in the Challenge Cup finals next month in New York City, alongside fellow regional winners from 75 cities.

We chatted with KinTrans co-founder Catherine Bentley to find out what inspired her and her co-founders to launch KinTrans, how the system works in real-world applications and more. Here’s what we found out:

What was the entrepreneurial ah-ha moment that led to KinTrans’ launch?

“Mohamed Elwazer was in a metro station in Cairo, Egypt, as a youth when he saw a deaf boy trying to communicate with a police officer. The officer became frustrated and walked away.
Later, in his university years as a computer system engineer specializing in artificial intelligence, the Microsoft Kinect was released with the game Dance Central. As Mohamed watched people dance in front of the sensor, this distant memory of the deaf boy returned to give rise to early concepts of a sign language translator.

Working on KinTrans has helped us understand how ‘disability’ or being ‘disabled’ is really part of the perceptual constructs that society enforces. The labels actually do not represent the people who receive them. KinTrans is dedicated to the larger efforts of using technology to eliminate such implied barriers everywhere.”

What are the basics of how KinTrans works, and can you walk us through a real-world application of the system?
“KinTrans facilitates person-to-person conversations by taking sign language to voice and text, and a speaker’s voice to text, with an avatar soon being released to sign back the speaker’s voice.

Today, conversations between deaf signers and hearing speakers take place on the screen of a connected tablet laptop or desktop. Everyone communicates in real-time in their own language. At a bank account service area, for example, sign language signers and hearing bank representatives can talk together about statements, services or new home loans.”

Where is KinTrans being used today and how?
“Currently, it’s being tested in a bank in Dubai and in governmental service-related areas, using Arabic and American Sign Language. Being that KinTrans was built upon movement, it can learn any sign language.

Also, recently, KinTrans was awarded a grant that allows us to engage with corporate partners to build custom local sign language-based dictionaries for use with deaf customers, and to create a documented business case for deaf accessibility. We’re also working with IBM and Local Motors on a smart city initiative called Accessible Olli, an accessible, driverless bus. Deaf riders will be able to communicate in sign language with IBM Watson chatbots.”

How are you feeling about competing in the upcoming 1776 Challenge Cup finals, and what do you hope will come of your participation?
“Looking back, the 2017 regional Austin 1776 Challenge Cup win by KinTrans was a complete surprise! Honestly, the startup competition in our region is HUGE. There are so many creative and talented people with so much deep experience, passion and success in solving tough challenges across various fields. That said, we were very humbled to be a part of this group, so the recognition is truly an honor.

“1776’s global platform gives KinTrans a megaphone to the world for our mission and unique approach to solving this communication barrier. We look forward to networking with other entrepreneurs at the upcoming competition, to learning their stories and lessons, and to connecting with networks we otherwise would not have access to.”