The Korea Herald


Braille smartwatch start-up catches global PR wave

Still no product in hand, Dot CEO says it’s never too early to do right thing

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 6, 2016 - 18:41

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A Korean start-up swept headlines around the globe last year for developing a $300 braille smartwatch that it said would help solve illiteracy for the blind.

Dot Inc. became one of the most hyped Korean hardware start-ups both locally and abroad, with its baby-faced CEO Eric Ju-yoon Kim, 25, speaking at events including a TEDx conference in Mumbai and Herald Corp.’s own Herald Design Forum.

Yet no one has even seen the watch work. Its commercial launch, originally slated for last month, has been delayed to June, as the team is still struggling to make the gadget and its tiny moving parts weather-resistant, Kim said.

The CEO is aware of the heightened expectations surrounding the smartwatch ― also called Dot ― and is nervous about underdelivering, but he suggests start-ups should take what public relations they can get. Rather than worry about meeting the launch date, what’s important for Dot is developing a solid product that will satisfy the community it’s serving, he said.

“As a start-up, getting the spotlight is really, really important. I think it’s really a lucky thing, so I haven’t refused any offer from the media,” Kim told The Korea Herald in an interview on his global vision.

“There’s the famous quote from Martin Luther King: ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ That’s what we are doing.”

CEO Eric Kim poses at the start-up’s office in Geumcheon-gu, southwestern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) CEO Eric Kim poses at the start-up’s office in Geumcheon-gu, southwestern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Strategy played as much a part of Dot’s PR wave as did good luck and timing. After winning the second season of KBS’ start-up reality competition show “Golden Pentagon” in December 2013, Dot landed a spot in SK Telecom’s start-up incubator and funding from Kakao’s East Gate Partners and took Korean media by storm as it increased its presence through local start-up competitions.

It then focused on global competitions and Korean government-led overseas programs in 2015 until news of the watch spread like wildfire last summer, with Dot’s story being relayed in English, Russian, German, French and more. Now Kim has become an unofficial face for the vision-impaired, speaking at TEDx last month about issues facing the community of 285 million people, which is largely ignored by nongovernmental organizations in favor of higher-profile problems like poverty and hunger, he explained.

Kim was inspired to set up Dot after he first met a blind person while at university in the U.S. and saw her massive braille Bible. The start-up, cofounded by Kim and two others, seeks to disrupt the cartel of high-priced braille products, whose base parts are supplied largely by a few companies. Dot’s patented core technology replaces traditional bulky ceramic pins with a single-magnet cell, which can fit four braille characters onto the face of a 42-millimeter smartwatch.

Dot seeks to democratize the price and technology of braille to make reading more accessible for the blind. Kim hopes decreasing illiteracy among the vision-impaired will increase their employment and education opportunities, while allowing them the conventional privacy of reading their smartphones silently.

The start-up is also diving into B2G, working with governments, to install its second made-for-public device in public spaces such as libraries, ATMs and bus and subway stops to replace today’s audio devices. The team will head to Kenya in March to install the devices at libraries and ATMs for the first time.

Meanwhile, it hopes to work with big corporations like Amazon when it kicks off work this year on its third product, a Kindle-like braille tablet that it hopes to equip with multilayered capabilities to allow for a three-dimensional reading experience.

The PR tour de force will continue in a crowdfunding campaign with a video to feature blind opera tenor Andrea Bocelli in the first quarter to raise money for the watch’s mass production and the tablet’s development. Dot aims to raise a global round of investment in the second quarter.

“Hopefully there should be no barriers to getting this device. Everyone should get it, everyone should afford it, so that maybe the unemployment rate among blind people decreases,” Kim said.

“Basically what we are trying to do is give them the same opportunity that we have right now. So if we make that happen, I think (my mission) is going to be done.”

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By Elaine Ramirez (