When Dave Schleppenbach first met Wendi — the woman he would later marry — she was registered for an algebra class that was to start the following January. But Wendi, who is vision impaired, couldn’t get the Braille text she needed until April, several months after the class had begun. Eventually she dropped the class, but her trials inspired Schleppenbach to help her and other visually impaired individuals access printed information.
In 1995 Schleppenbach formed the VISIONS (Visually Impaired Students Initiative ON Science) Lab at Purdue University, where he was a graduate student. The research lab aimed to develop new ways to help visually impaired Purdue students access the information they needed to study science. Soon, Joe Said, also a Purdue graduate student, approached Schleppenbach with additional product ideas. The two joined forces to develop several new technologies, including a mostly automated media conversion process to create Braille publications, digital talking books, audio books and large-print books.
Recognizing a large unmet need among visually impaired individuals outside the Purdue community, Schleppenbach and Said formed gh LLC in February 2000 as part of the Purdue Gateways Program, which helps entrepreneurs transfer technology innovations into the private sector. "We are one of several companies revolutionizing the [assistive technology] industry," Schleppenbach says. (Another is ViewPlus, NBIA’s 2003 Outstanding Incubator Client winner, whose president, John Gardner, is among Schleppenbach’s friends.)
Traditionally, volunteers translate books into Braille by hand. Printers then create master printing press plates for each page. While at Purdue, Schleppenbach and Said developed computer software to perform the linguistic transformation automatically, using Extensible Markup Language (XML). The company employs Braille specialists for quality control.
To produce Braille pages, gh uses high-technology Braille embossers that Schleppenbach says are like dot-matrix printers. By custom building these devices, the company can print at least 1,300 pages an hour (five to six times faster than conventional Braille printing) without the expense of creating metal plates. In December 2003, gh shipped 1.3 million pages of Braille. The company also creates computer-based electronic products, such as digital talking books, textbooks and training manuals.
gh clients include the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Educational Testing Service and the state of California. The IRS, which has more than 1,200 visually impaired employees and must provide forms to taxpayers with visual impairments, is gh’s biggest client. To date, gh has earned more than $6 million in revenue; in 2003 alone, gross revenues totaled $3.4 million, up from $820,000 in 2000.
From the start, Schleppenbach and Said decided to grow the company slowly, choosing to work with a local investor they met through the Gateways program rather than taking the venture capital route to financing. "We chose to operate with a small amount of angel investment and bootstrap cash," Schleppenbach says. "This gave us time to study our core business and understand the market before we went too far, too fast."
According to Schleppenbach, staff from both Purdue’s Gateways Program and its Research Foundation provided him and Said with basic business advice that played a crucial role in the company’s success. The company also benefited from interactions with other CEOs and professional service advisors they met through the incubation program. "Without this, we would have made some pretty big mistakes," Schleppenbach says.
Schleppenbach says the growth in the number of gh personnel — from just three in 2000 to more than 40 today — has brought about a major change in the culture of the organization. However, he attributes much of the company’s success to gh’s dedicated staff. "The real credit goes to our employees and the hard work they’ve put in," Schleppenbach says. "Some have put in 100-hour weeks, and it’s really starting to pay off."
Schleppenbach says gh is quickly outgrowing its offices in Purdue’s research park, and he hopes to break ground soon on a new facility. The company currently is housed in three separate offices totaling nearly 13,000 square feet (not counting storage space) in the Purdue Technology Center.
Although gh graduated from Purdue’s Gateways Program in June 2000, the company continues to have a close working relationship with the university. Purdue continues to license technology to gh, and the two organizations plan to work together to establish a Center for Excellence in Disabilities.
" I [never imagined] I would do this," Schleppenbach says. "I thought I was going to be a chemist working at a university, but I would not change a thing."
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