ViewPlus Technologies Inc. founder and president John Gardner has first-hand knowledge of the limitations visually impaired individuals face. When he lost his eyesight in 1988, the internationally recognized physics professor from Oregon State University found that simply reading a map or analyzing a spreadsheet was next to impossible.
While Braille helps the visually impaired read words, little technology was available to help them access graphical information. Noting that many visual objects — like the complex equations and flow charts common in math and science — cannot adequately be described with words, Gardner set out to develop tools to help him and others with visual disabilities study and work in fields that traditionally had been out of reach.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Gardner created the Science Access Project at Oregon State to develop technologies that promote full accessibility of electronic information by people with visual disabilities. ViewPlus Technologies was incorporated in 1996 to commercialize technologies that came out of the research project.
"All entrepreneurs have a passion to succeed, but Dr. Gardner is unparalleled in his laser-like focus on his mission," says Bill Ford, vice president of the board of directors at the Business Enterprise Center of Linn and Benton Counties in Corvallis, Ore. "ViewPlus is a company built on frustration over a situation John lives with every day, so he has a burning passion to do something about it."
Prior to joining the Business Enterprise Center in 1999, Gardner met with the staff of the incubator several times while growing his business at home. "I always knew we’d move into the incubator when the time was right," he says. "We knew technology, but we didn’t really know business. We recognized that we didn’t always know what we were doing though, so we reached out for help."
As an academic turned entrepreneur, Gardner appreciates that the incubator offers an on-site manager, Ellen Fuller, who can answer day-to-day questions about running a business. He notes that access to an advisory panel of seasoned business counselors, the availability of standard office facilities and services, and the ability to network with other entrepreneurs also have been instrumental to the growth of his business.
When the company needed marketing advice, it turned to a full-service marketing and advertising firm located in the incubator. When it needed electronic circuit work, it called upon another start-up client of the Business Enterprise Center.
Since 1999, the company has expanded from one 328-square-foot office to nearly 3,000 square feet of both office and light industrial space. ViewPlus also has experienced a dramatic increase in revenues, from $68,000 in FY 1999 to $687,000 in FY 2001. During the same period, the number of employees grew from three to 16, including Gardner’s wife, Carolyn, who serves as the vice president of operations, and their son, Jeff, who serves as vice president of marketing.
Much of the company’s revenue growth is linked to sales of the company’s flagship product, the Tiger embosser. Based on technology developed by Peter Langner, one of Gardner’s former students, the Tiger is the first embosser that prints both Braille and tactile graphics directly from most Microsoft Windows computer applications.
Previously, most tactile graphic materials were handmade and prohibitively expensive to produce, so the Tiger has introduced the blind to a wealth of information that has not been previously available to them, Gardner says. The technology is patented by Oregon State and licensed to ViewPlus.
Other ViewPlus products include DotsPlus, a Braille extension that allows the blind to read mathematical equations and symbols, and the Accessible Graphing Calculator, a scientific graphing calculator for the visually impaired.
Gardner says the company will continue to develop new technologies to help the visually impaired access the same information as sighted individuals. ViewPlus recently secured two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to improve the accessibility of graphic information on the Internet.
"We’re developing some very innovative technologies in a field where it’s sometimes difficult to find innovation," Gardner says. "When we started, we didn’t see many companies in the assistive technology industry willing to make an investment in innovation, so we decided to do it ourselves." Gardner, who received Oregon State’s Distinguished Service Award in 2002, retired from the university in January 2003.
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