Loro empowers wheelchair users with independence and freedomBy Marissa Sumathipala
Loro is an early stage startup with a mission to transform the lives of wheelchair users with a smart, assistive robot. Their founding team is part of the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Incubation program and Fit4Start accelerator program in Luxembourg. Loro has gone on to win 3rd place at the Microsoft Imagine Cup and semifinalist at Tech Crunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield. I sat down with the three of Loro’s founders—Lin Zhu, David Hojah, and Johae Song—to learn more about Loro’s story and vision for empowering wheelchair users.
Where it all started
The four founders of Loro—Lin Zhu, David Hojah, Johae Song, Vanessa Cunha—met at Prize4Life’s ALS Assistive Technology Hackathon in October 2017. They asked members of the ALS community a simple question, “If we could build anything in the world to make your life easier, what would it be?” After hearing the difficulties people with ALS face in connecting with the world, the founders of Loro decided to create a product to empower them with independence and freedom.
Trapped in their bodies
ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that gradually affects muscles under voluntary control, causing individuals to lose the ability to speak and move. One of the biggest challenges people with ALS face is lack of independence and social connection. People with ALS often cannot move their necks to see their surroundings, have often lost their ability to speak, or even point to their surroundings. This limits their communication abilities and field of vision, causing their quality of life to be affected. “It’s really like they’re stuck in their body”, founder Lin Zhu says.
The solution? A smart, user friendly device that improves vision and communication for people with physical challenges. “Our innovation comes from user centric design,” says founder Johae Song. Combining software and hardware, the patent pending technology includes a 360 degree rotating camera to give mobility restricted users a panoramic view of their surroundings; speech to text, text to speech, and a laser pointer for communication; facial recognition; and facial tracking.
To make their product accessible, Loro uses an integrated OS with touch and gaze control, so that users lacking voice or hand mobility can still use the device, and a universal wheelchair mount. Working one on one with users enabled Loro to hone in on the issues and how best to address them. For example, with current available text to speech technologies, it can take five minutes for a user to type out a simple “how are you?”. To overcome this barrier, Loro uses word predictions for faster communication and a laser pointer for instant communication and interaction with surroundings. With Loro, a user can more efficiently communicate their needs to their caretaker, such as pointing at a glass of water with the laser pointer.
In line with the emerging field of healthcare Internet of Things (IoT) technology, Loro is compatible with Alexa. “It’s like a bridge for people who cannot speak to use other smart devices”, says founder David. Users who cannot speak can communicate directly with Alexa. The word prediction software helps to quickly relay commands to Alexa, enabling users to control other smart devices via Loro.
Loro started out working with the tight knit, supportive ALS community, partnering with ALS associations and the founders of the Ice Bucket Challenge. But Loro’s technology can improve quality of life for those suffering other conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy. Loro is developing relations with similar organizations such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Compassionate Care ALS, HealthWell Foundation, ATIA, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. In total, the market size is 70M wheelchair users worldwide. The total addressable market size is 35B worldwide and 1.8B in the US. Their serviceable obtainable market (market portion Loro can realistically capture) is estimated at 16B (Source: Statista).
Small market size is one of the biggest challenges Loro faces. Convincing potential investors that their business model is sustainable remains a barrier to overcome, but Loro’s founders are confident; “Getting seed funding is really challenging, but once we pass that bridge and generate revenue we can attract investors and scale up fast.”, says founder David Hojah.
It all starts with the user
Key to the success of Loro is their strong connections to users. They are presently testing the technology with 50 users affected by ALS, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy, and are looking to expand their user base. They recruit users through partnerships to the ALS Association, Massachusetts General Hospital, and their website.
“There are many aspects of daily life for disabled individuals that may pose issues which cause both emotional and physical struggles – Loro reduces these limitations. We are really motivated to use tech to close the gap people with physical challenges experience when interacting with the world.”
– Vanessa Cunha, Co-Founder
In particular, one wheelchair bound person suffering from ALS was key to the success of Loro. The day they met John (not his real name) was a turning point for them. Founder Johae Song says meeting John inspired her to “change my career completely, to be an inclusive designer.” Before being diagnosed with ALS, John was an amazing architect; after, he struggled to communicate using largely a headmouse, a device that works like a computer mouse but uses head movements instead, for people with limited hand mobility. Forming a personal connection with John was a “big eye-opener for us” says founder Lin Zhu. John’s technical engineering background combined with his perspective as a person with ALS proved incredibly useful in rooting each of Loro’s innovations in user friendliness: he’s since become a key mentor for Loro’s team.
User focused design and accessibility is what sets Loro apart from other competitors. Their competitors include social robot companies like JIBO and an eye tracking company called TOBII. The main interaction between social robots and users is voice comments, but that poses an issue for many users who cannot speak. TOBII uses eye tracking, not voice comments, but a high cost of several thousand makes the product financially inaccessible to many users.
The unique user focused approach of Loro is aided by their diverse team with backgrounds ranging from engineering to computer science to business. David Hojah, co-founder and COO, is getting a Master’s at the Harvard School of Public Health. Loro is Hojah’s third company. Lin Zhu, co-founder, is a sophomore at Harvard College majoring in Computer Science. Johae Song, co-founder and CEO, is studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The fourth co-founder, Vanessa Cunha, is finishing her PhD in medical device technology from University of Lisbon and is a visiting graduate student at MIT. Aside from co-founders, their team includes Siva Tejaswi Irkm, a Master’s candidate in electrical engineering and robotics at Boston University; Andres Montoya, a Master’s student at Harvard Business School; Will Yao a sophomore at Harvard studying computer science. “All of us have a great mission, which is helping people with physical challenges, to make them connected to the world, be independent and have that feeling of freedom”, says founder David Hojah.
What’s next for Loro
Loro’s is working towards a B2B business model: partnering with wheelchair companies and hospitals, while fostering connections to users through B2C channels to preserve their user-centric design approach. To date, they’ve raised 100K: 50k from the Fit4Start accelerator program in Luxembourg and 50k from award money at competitions. Loro has received recognition at startup competitions, including winning 3rd at Microsoft Imagine Cup and being named semifinalist at TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield. The company is eligible to receive another 100k from Fit4Start.
They’re currently preparing their product for manufacturing with a project launch planned for September 2019. Loro is working to add more features such as object detection and wheelchair navigation, to transform smart wheelchair companions into medical devices.