In the UK, an estimated 7,810 people work in 123 companies using or developing tech to address accessibility. Accessibility tech companies can be found all over the UK, with 73% based outside of London.
Helping people with everything from mobility issues to accessing the internet, the solutions being developed by UK-based accessibility tech companies are innovative and place the well-being of their users at their heart.
Of course, they are also generating money; turning over an average of £23.5m and employing an estimated average of 66 employees, the UK’s accessibility tech companies are highly valued in more ways than one, showing that being for-profit and having a social conscience are not mutually exclusive.
For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we spoke to five accessibility tech companies to find out how they have been impacted by the pandemic, exploring the opportunities and challenges that have come their way.
Limitless Travel in Birmingham lets users book package holidays through an online platform, specialising in catering for disabled people. Following a tough year due to Covid-19’s travel restrictions, the company is preparing to restart trips in June before doubling down on sales in the summer.
The travel tech company initially reduced its team by two-thirds during the pandemic but has since grown sales, taking the company from 15 to eight employees in total. Founder Angus Drummond explains that this was a calculated change partly enabled by technological advancements and strategic positioning, rather than one that was forced upon the company.
“We’ve been able to [downsize] due to increased tech and automation and finding strategic outsourced partners,” he says. “For sales, we are working with a company to cold call care homes and create leads which turn into meetings that I can attend.”
“As a business, we have been able to do things more cost-effectively during Covid.”
Angus found a “really good” team of developers in India to run the company’s website, costing a tiny fraction of what companies back home were quoting. “As a business, we have been able to do things more cost-effectively during Covid,” he says. “The pandemic enabled us to actually have time to pause and properly do our due diligence.”
The pandemic also gave Angus more time to reconsider the company’s investment strategy. Limitless Travel has raised money on several occasions through grant and social enterprise funding, and last year the company almost met with VCs to explore securing investment to develop its product. However, with travel tech becoming a high-risk category, Angus changed his mind.
“The past year has made me more cautious when it comes to raising investment,” he says. “I realised that we could grow organically for the time being to prove our product until we knew exactly why we needed the money before taking it on. It’s almost like 2016 to 2020 was phase one of the business, and I can now go again now being more experienced and wiser.”
Walk With Path
Walk With Path develops data-driven wearable tech solutions that help people with mobility problems. Founded in 2014, the London-based company has created a shoe insole called Path Feel that provides vibrational feedback to the soles of people at risk of falls due to a loss of sensation in their lower limbs. It also prevents the development of diabetic ulcers caused by abnormal gait that can lead to amputation if left untreated.
For founder Lise Pape, giving healthtech professionals the ability to remotely monitor patients’ walking ability has been a crucial preventative measure during Covid-19, which has seen a three-fold increase in the rate of amputation due to diabetic ulcers in patients unable to get (or attend) hospital appointments.
Walk With Path founder Lise Pape
“A three-fold increase in amputation is massive and obviously devastating for those people,” says Lise. “Covid-19 has really highlighted the need for remote monitoring of people with chronic conditions to avoid them having to come to a hospital and potentially having their appointments cancelled.”
Walk With Path used the pandemic to conduct market research ahead of developing its first consumer-focused product, a wearable insole called Flauve that uses vibrations from haptic feedback to boost people’s motivation when exercising.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the company. At the start of the pandemic, it was forced to delay two of its clinical trials designed to collect vital efficacy data required for the regulatory approval of new products. “The delay impacted us massively,” says Lise. “As a startup, it was a very long period to have to cover costs without necessarily getting anything in return.”
Lise decries the temporary loss of physical events used to meet and demonstrate Walk With Path’s products to stakeholders including potential partners. “We’ve done many online events during Covid, but their quality isn’t as good [as physical],” she says. “You can’t build relationships in the same way and people focus less when on a video call.”
Founded in Gateshead, Recite Me is a cloud-based web accessibility solution that lets people customise websites in a way that makes them easier to read. The company moved quickly to secure its workers’ jobs at the start of the pandemic, with staff taking pay cuts depending on their seniority level.
“We decided collectively that we were going to get through it as a team,” says the company’s founder and CEO Ross Linnett. “It was important that we took the worry of mortgages and bills away from people, and it meant a lot to them to know that they would be coming back.”
Ross says that the company’s sales dropped drastically in the early months of the pandemic. As a result, it shifted from a sales- to a marketing-led strategy as sales staff were furloughed. “We furloughed quite a few sales people – particularly telesales – as nobody at the other end was picking up the phone, so we spent a lot more effort on getting the message out as opposed to trying to sell to people,” Ross says.
Ross explains that website accessibility is often misunderstood, with some companies thinking that making their websites accessible to the one billion people globally who experience some form of disability is a “tick-box exercise”. When the pandemic took hold, he says that those companies began to realise that they would risk losing business if a percentage of their customers couldn’t read Covid-related information on their websites due to having a disability or English being their second language.
Spotting an opportunity to let companies try its website accessibility tool, ReciteMe pivoted from selling the product outright to letting businesses cover vital Covid-related information on their websites for free. Ross says that the move was a success, with many companies who sampled the software turning into paying clients.
Edinburgh-based Neatebox has used the pandemic to develop the technical side of its WelcoME app, which aims to revolutionise the customer experience for disabled people. WelcoME lets users set up a personalised profile that explains their disability – whether physical, mental or otherwise. When they approach a venue, the app triggers a virtual perimeter that alerts its staff to come and provide assistance.
Instead of running as a standalone app that runs on mobile devices, WelcoME is set to launch as a web-based app that integrates directly into websites. This will allow companies globally to use WelcoME without having to download it from an app store, negating the need for Neatebox to apply for its app to be accepted onto various international app stores.
Neatebox founder Gavin Neate
Founder and CEO Gavin Neate added an “amazing” enterprise sales and relationships executive to the team during the pandemic who has helped the startup secure several new clients. Gavin, who pitched to judges when the company won Tech Nation’s Rising Stars 1.0 competition, says that the switch to holding remote meetings during Covid-19 has allowed him to hold more “evangelical” conversations than before.
“It was difficult for me before because my go-to is getting up on stage and presenting, which of course you can do more of on Zoom,” he says. “It has freed me up to have more conversations that link me to people further down the chain, whereas before I would have had the initial chat before passing it on to our sales executive.”
Belfast-based Kraydel’s tech has been used by healthcare professionals to remotely monitor people’s health during the pandemic. Designed for people who may not be familiar with tablets and other smart computing devices, the company’s Konnect platform runs on an internet-connected black box that connects to a TV. Using a standard remote control, users can quickly video call home care providers and access support.
Kraydel saw an opportunity to innovate during the pandemic, integrating Konnect with a Bluetooth device called a pulse oximeter that clamps onto a finger to measure pulse rate and oxygen levels. This combination has allowed an NHS trust in England to remotely monitor Covid-induced symptoms such as respiratory infections and fevers, helping carers and family members by displaying readings on-screen.
“The move from face-to-face to virtual has been very successful. It has made us stop and think why we weren’t doing it like this before.”
Kraydel’s installation team, which installs Konnect in homes, was unable to carry out its work during the pandemic due to social distancing restrictions. “Access to people’s homes has been difficult due to installers having to go through regular checks and control measures,” says David McCleary, Kraydel’s CTO, who says that the company’s installation and R&D teams have still managed to grow during Covid-19.
Overall, David says that the company has benefitted from the switch to remote working, which he says will continue once government restrictions have fully lifted. “When it comes to sales and marketing, the move from face-to-face to virtual has been very successful,” he says. “It has made us stop and think why we weren’t doing it like this before.”
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