ThirdEye, a start-up by Penn students to help the visually impaired, is sold

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Rajat Bhageria, founder and CEO of ThirdEye, is a junior at Penn. ThirdEye was a winner in the Stellar StartUps competition.

Rajat Bhageria had reason to party all day Wednesday, one day after he and three other University of Pennsylvania students sold ThirdEye Technologies, a start-up founded two years ago to help the blind and visually impaired know what they are looking at.

Yet by 9 a.m., Bhageria,  20, a junior and CEO of the company, was sitting in an industrial-design class.

"Life goes on," he said in an interview before class, sticking to a commitment he and his teammates at ThirdEye made even when it was apparent they had created something with market potential.

"Our team is very insistent that we don't drop out. College is a nonrenewable resource," Bhageria said. "I can always start another company."

His first, ThirdEye, developed a mobile app for iOS and Android devices that uses Google's Cloud Vision API to read aloud descriptions of objects and can also convert photos of text to speech. It has been acquired by TheBlindGuide LLC, a South Carolina-based e-commerce company founded in Lansdale to serve people with vision challenges. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"It was never about the money," said Bhageria, who was born in India and grew up in Cincinnati. "Hopefully, we can help a lot of people live a more independent life."

With the money from the sale — and funding he hopes to entice from other investors — Bhageria wants to help enable more young entrepreneurs through a new student-run venture-capital fund, Prototype Capital, details of which are at www.prototype.capital.

"It's all about reinvesting it into projects that can make an even bigger impact ... to kind of work on the most pressing problems the world faces," Bhageria said of his longer-term vision.

TheBlindGuide was launched in June 2015 by Ed Henkler, a former longtime resident of Lansdale, 21-year veteran of Merck, and former board president of the Montgomery County Association for the Blind. Now living outside Columbia, S.C., Henkler was unavailable for comment Wednesday. According to TheBlindGuide's website, Henkler's focus on blindness prevention and enabling technology was inspired by his mother's loss of sight to macular degeneration.  

That a business with the resources to expand ThirdEye's reach worldwide saw value in such a young start-up is the culmination of "an absolutely crazy journey working on the company during college and then commercializing it with essentially no resources," Bhageria said. "We didn't raise a single cent. We were completely bootstrapped. We took advantage we were students."

That meant tapping the skills of other students and reaching out to professors, entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists, and organizations affiliated with the blind. Surprising to Bhageria was his access to chief executives of "massive multibillion-dollar corporations" when he'd ask for their time on the phone.

"It's amazing how few people turn you down, because they were in your shoes not long ago," he said.

The ThirdEye team has evolved over time. The original members included Bhageria, along with Ben Sandler, Joe Cappadona and, soon after, David Ongchoco. At acquisition, it includes Bhageria, Daniel Hanover and Nandeet Mehta, with Sandler not actively working in the company but having an equity stake.

"I've come to learn it doesn't matter how young or inexperienced the students we have are, they have these amazing ideas," said Jeffrey Babin, a professor at Penn who for the last two years has been Bhageria's adviser in the Wharton Venture Initiation Program, an incubator and accelerator. "I never underestimate them anymore."

Though Bhageria is committed to graduating — in 2018, with a bachelor's degree in economics from Wharton and a master's in robotics and artificial intelligence — he said starting a company and taking it through a sale was a curriculum he couldn't have found in any classroom. Among the most invaluable lessons were how to build a product for market he could not completely relate to, pitching to potential investors, and motivating team members.

It is work Bhageria wants to continue.

"I've been really pushing more of my peers to work and commercialize the projects they're working on during college because of how much you're able to do with so little resources," Bhageria said.

ThirdEye's expenses were "minor," he said, primarily for travel to meet with organizations for the blind to help with beta testing.

Since its free app hit the market in January 2016, ThirdEye has been averaging about 500 users monthly, Bhageria said. The $8 monthly user fee in the United States was waived in developing countries, he said, declining to provide specifics on revenue.

No matter the challenges of product development and consumer outreach, Bhageria said, it was "cool to have bigger problems than 'I can't get into this fraternity party.'"