Vision Assistance Startup Aira Inking Deals With UCSD, Retail Stores

Xconomy San Diego — 

Students and shoppers will soon be using technology developed by Aira, a San Diego startup that links vision-impaired people with “visual interpreters” via smartphone and smart glasses, to help them navigate their environments.

In recent weeks Aira announced that its accessibility service would be available at no cost to those who need it while at UC San Diego, in about 5,000 AT&T stores, and at all Wegmans grocery stores. The Rochester, NY-based grocery chain has 97 stores in six East Coast states.

The Aira app links people who are blind or have impaired vision with independent contractors that Aira calls “agents.” Via the app, agents help Aira users with tasks they may otherwise have difficulty managing, from shopping for groceries to reading a restaurant menu. The agents talk to users through the speaker in their phone or smart glasses.

The service is available for individuals via paid subscription; the price of the subscription varies based on how many minutes of assistance are provided. Aira offers four tiers, starting with an $89 monthly plan, which comes with 100 minutes, and topping out at $329 per month for unlimited minutes of assistance. With a subscription comes Aira Smart Glasses.

The recently signed corporate customers, however, will be providing the service free within locations each has identified. At UCSD, that includes the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and its medical campus in Hillcrest. Signing on businesses is a way for the company to more rapidly expand its user base—and increase revenue—as compared to acquiring individual users. That’s the goal, anyway.

CEO Suman Kanuganti founded Aira in 2014 while he was an MBA student at the UCSD Rady School of Management. Among his advisors was the late Larry Bock, a serial entrepreneur who helped start 50 companies, most after he was diagnosed at age 29 with an eye disease that causes progressive loss of vision.

The company’s connection with AT&T is longstanding. The Dallas, TX-based telecom helped Aira develop its service through its Foundry for Connected Health initiative in Houston, which focuses on digital health technologies, and AT&T provides Aira users with dedicated wireless bandwidth.

In 2017 Aira raised a $12 million Series B round to expand its services—which had been tested with about 300 people—to thousands more users. The round was led by San Francisco-based Jazz Venture Partners and Ann Arbor, MI-based Arboretum Ventures. Lux Capital, Arch Venture Partners, and Felicis Ventures also participated, and the National Federation of the Blind joined as a strategic investor.

Aira, previously housed within the Southern California incubator EvoNexus, is based in La Jolla.