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When I was 13 years old, I was still trading Pokemon cards and working up the nerve to ask my crush to the school dance. Thirteen-year-old Shubham Banerjee, however, is already the CEO of a company that’s so badass that Intel’s looked past his young age and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in his startup venture Braigo Labs. Through Braigo labs, Banerjee focuses on creating braille printers that are more affordable for the world’s vision-impaired.
However, what I find most impressive is not Banerjee’s entrepreneurial spirit at such a young age, but his humility. Banerjee is completely aware of his position as a privileged kid, but he also knows it’s his responsibility to use his position to help the world. If there were guidelines on how to raise a kid not to be a spoiled brat, this kids’ parents should write it.
But enough praise from me — read on for my illuminating interview with Shubham Banerjee, whiz kid founder and CEO of Braigo Labs. Among other things, we discuss where he got his entrepreneurial spirit and what his definition of success is.
When did you get this passion of solving problems and having this entrepreneurial spirit at such a young age?
My family has been deeply involved in volunteering with nonprofits and I have been taught from a very young age about giving back to society. On top of that, I am growing up in Silicon Valley where I am surrounded by technologists and professionals, including entrepreneurs. In social gatherings also, discussions revolve around new technologies and what trends are. As I grew up, technology, helping people and giving back to society all started to merge together. For Braigo, it started small and now it’s going in the right direction.
Walk us through on how you thought up your business idea and why you’re so passionate in it.
“I’ve been loving Legos since I was 2 years old. In the mail that came to our house in December of 2013, I noticed some of those posts that said, ‘Help the blind people with donations.’ I had no idea about braille so I asked my parents how blind people read, and they said, ‘Google it!’ Upon further research, I discovered that typical braille printers cost about $2,000, or even more, and I felt that was unnecessarily expensive for someone already at a disadvantage. Thus, I put my brain to work, and the first thing that came to my mind was to create an alternative using my favorite toy. I took the Lego model Mindstorms EV3 and devised a new kind of braille printer that’s only $350. It took me three weeks and I broke and re-assembled seven or so different types of models before settling on one and programming it. My dad was my guide whenever I got stuck. He works a lot, even from home after he comes back from office. He used to sit down with me at the kitchen table while he continued with his conference calls and work while I worked on building the model. For the first couple of weeks, it was very long days for me. I started working on Braigo after I finished my homework and assignments, and some days , I was awake till 2 a.m. — but it was all worth it. “
After version 1.0 came out, I received a lot of feedback from parents of blind children and different organizations for the blind. They wanted a commercially available, cheap braille printer.
What I did with Legos has me convinced that I’m onto something. I want to bring a braille printer to market that’s at an affordable price point. To do that, I needed something small and powerful to drive the system — Intel Edison is a great fit for that. I’m so passionate about solving this problem that I spent my summer building what you see here. I got a membership at the Techshop in San Jose to learn design tools, worked with other individuals to get 3D-printed mechanical parts and also worked with machinists to design new braille heads and assembly.”
“Intel’s new Edison chip was the perfect choice for being connected to the cloud/internet, and at the same time it reduces the BOM price by not using separate components/drivers. It is less power-hungry and has the future possibility of using batteries to power itself while in remote places of the world. The design uses new (patent pending) technology, and using Edison opens up the possibility to potentially use the same mechanism for other assistive technology products, like a refreshable reader and a display. The ability to use the back-end cloud for software upgrades (without requiring any user interface) can make it much easier for a visually impaired person to install drivers or programs. The capabilities of Edison enabled me to do a whole set of use cases I hadn’t previously thought about. For example, when we wake up in the morning we look at our smartphone or tablet to see the headline news. With Edison, we’ve set it up so that CNN headlines are printed off automatically every morning.”
You mentioned that you want to finish your high school education and go to college. In an era where some people may say it’s “cool” to drop out and become an entrepreneur, what makes college so appealing to you?
I am still a teen now and need to learn a lot more about life while also maturing in the process with life’s experiences. I feel that startups, companies and entrepreneurship will come and go, but education is a lifelong journey that stays with you. I feel that college/school not only offers you a chance to learn structured problem solving, but it also helps you create lifelong bonds with new friends. I feel it helps to mature someone to take on the curveballs that life throws at you.
Would you consider skipping college if your company were to become extremely successful in the next couple years?
No, never. I think money was never a goal for me (I have my parents for that safe environment) when I started with Braigo. When it comes out on the market, the users will decide if their problem is solved by the solution provided by Braigo Labs Inc. That will probably dictate the success of my project.
What do your parents think about all of your success? What are some major lessons in life/business that you’ve learned from them?
I have learned one thing in life from my parents (among many others) — ETHICS and MORAL VALUES. It’s ingrained in our family and whatever I have seen my parents do. My parents probably have the biggest headache setting everything up for the business. Since I am a minor, there are lots of legalities surrounding me.
I’m sure you have a lot of contact with older and more successful power players in the industry. What are some things you learned from interacting with people more experienced than you?
Yes, indeed. I’ve had good opportunities to meet a lot of different successful people from the industry. It’s amazing how much encouragement they’ve given toward my efforts. They haven’t just treated me as a kid and brushed me off. That is important, because I learned that since they have gone through the same process that I am going through now they know what it takes — a little bit of encouragement. From members of Congress, to industry veterans, to celebrities, to professors, everybody has common words — “Keep up the good work” and “Let me know if I can be of any help.” Lesson learned: We need to help each other as a society to make our lives better.
From securing investment for your startup at such a young age, do you have any major mentors whom are currently helping you along the way?
I have tons of mentors from technologists, to professors, to investors, and of course, my parents. I have been fortunate to get good guidance. I am just 13 years old — I need coaching and mentorship.
What are some weaknesses of yours that you want to improve on currently?
I have lots of weaknesses. My parents say that I have become a teen and will go through a lot of changes — lol. I have to find a better way to manage my school and Braigo. I try to take on everything all together: advanced maths, debate team and Braigo all together. Maybe I need to learn to balance it out a bit more. But one important thing to note: My parents have never pressured me to be on a certain path. They are really cool. That’s probably the reason why I have been able to experiment a bit more with my life. Also, being all over the internet and news sites means that there will be trolls and people with negative feedback. In the earlier part of this year I used to check around to see what others were commenting on different posts — now I don’t.
What is success to you? Does the possibility of making a ton of money appeal to you as all?
I am lucky to have parents who take care of me. Money is never a motivator for me, while doing “social good” is. I want to make a difference in someone else’s life. I feel that the blessings that I will receive from that has more weight.
Lastly, tell us some exciting things we can expect from your company in the near future.
You saw the work on the printer, but there are others on the drawing board.