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Tony Abrahams thanks his father, a GP who specialised in helping people with disabilities, for his business passion. “I had always expected that it would be in the field of disability that I would be able to make a difference, because I had been made aware that it had been underserved and overlooked for so long,” the Australian-born MBA graduate from Saïd Business School, Oxford, explains.
People who are deaf or have hearing difficulties are at a significant disadvantage in society over and above their physical disability. They are more likely to drop out of school early, more likely to suffer mental illness and less likely to find work than those without hearing problems.
While sign language is a great help to communicate with others, it is a completely different tongue to spoken languages, meaning that those using it have to effectively translate messages twice to understand the original meaning.
Ai-Media is a captioning technology business, co-founded in Sydney by Mr Abrahams, the company’s chief executive, and fellow Australian Alex Jones, who is deaf and takes the role of Ai-Media’s brand ambassador.
The pair started with a contract with an Australian pay television station in 2004, and now they have contracts with Sky News and Fox Sports.
Ai-Media has also expanded into the education sector with its application called Ai-Live, which enables children who are deaf or hard of hearing to read what their teachers are saying on tablet devices or laptops within seconds of the words being uttered.
This is achieved by Ai-Media’s team of 200 “captioners”, based in Australia, Sri Lanka, France, India and the UK, who convert words into text using translation software optimised to their personal voice patterns, before rapidly returning the text to the user via the internet.
Ai-Media, which operates as a for-profit social enterprise, has developed additional applications for teacher training, working with individuals with autism and teaching English as an additional language.
How the product was developed
Mr Abrahams came up with the idea of using technology in this way while studying as a Rhodes scholar at Saïd in 2000. Key to this was meeting Dame Stephanie Shirley, the British technology entrepreneur and philanthropist, with whom he discussed the effects of the internet on society. These talks eventually led to the creation of the Oxford Internet Institute. Dame Shirley has since become a business mentor to Mr Abrahams.
Although Ai-Media was formed in Australia after Mr Abrahams graduated, his UK connections have helped the business to become involved in British educational trials. For instance, primary school teachers in the West Midlands and London have used Ai-Live to analyse and improve the performance of children in their classrooms.
Ai-Media, which now has offices in Australia and the UK, generated A$12m in its last financial year.
The business has raised more than A$9m in private funding since 2010 to develop the technology and services further, including a £200,000 investment from Nesta Impact Investments in 2014.
Existing projects spawn ideas for developing the technology further and, according to Mr Abrahams, there is considerable scope for further expansion in the education market. For instance, teachers have found that the system can be used in classrooms where some of the children in a class speak English as a second language and would benefit from a prompt on an iPad in their mother tongue.
It can also be used where teachers assign groups of pupils different tasks. Ai-Media’s technology can be used to remind the children of their instructions so that the teacher does not have to keep walking around the classroom prompting them.
“At the core of it we are digitising information in real time,” Mr Abrahams says. “We are only beginning to scratch the edge of what we can do with that technology.”