[Startup Interview] CEO of Waddle, a startup developing ‘Sori Market’, an AI-based barrier-free shopping platform for blind people, Jihyuk Park

Today we will meet the CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle, a student startup awarded with the special prize in the 12th E*5 KAIST.

Waddle develops ‘Sori Market’ that converts image data into audio so blind people can also shop online. Let’s meet CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle!

Can you briefly introduce Waddle and yourself?

Hello, I am Jihyuk Park, the founder of Waddle, a startup that illuminates the blind spots of technology innovation.

Waddle started as a KAIST student startup team in 2018 to reduce the digital gap of blind people, and launched ‘Sori Market’, a barrier-free shopping platform that resolves the accessibility problems of existing shopping malls using AI. Currently, Waddle is researching an audio-based and more intuitive interface that benefits everyone.

Buying items with sound. A sound market for blind people sounds very unique! Let’s hear more about it.

Waddle develops technology for the digitally underprivileged. How did Waddle decide on this item as its startup product, and what made you interested in creating a technology for the blind?

When I was a junior in High School, I wanted to create a wearable robot like Iron Man and entered the Mechanical Engineering department at KAIST to research rehabilitation robots. I felt that technology is an area that can completely change someone’s life, and have been developing and researching disability aids for the past seven years.

I became interested in the problems that the blind face after I entered college, when I interned at a domestic startup developing braille smartwatches and met a blind customer, who became my friend. He had no problem in daily life, like eating or going to the bathroom, but had difficulty using simple features of smartphones, which made me reflect on the digital gap.

Before this digital gap became more serious, I thought about what I could do and started the team Waddle. I gathered team members who were also interested in the problem and worked together, which eventually led to starting a business.

So, Waddle’s item is based on CEO Park’s first-hand experience. It is easy to disregard a problem, but it seems like CEO Park’s passion and research to resolve the digital gap led to starting Waddle. In addition, it must have been a difficult decision considering the profits of the startup, but the consideration for the underprivileged makes Waddle special.

Compared to the existing screen readers of other startups for the blind, what is ‘Sori Market’s uniqueness and advantages?

Blind people can use smartphones using screen readers that reads the text on smartphones like VoiceOver in iPhones and TalkBack in Androids.

However, these screen readers can only read texts, and cannot read text within images or non-texts, which is problematic because most domestic online shopping malls include details of a product in an image file. Existing screen readers can only read limited information like the name and price of the product. However, Waddle’s Sori Market can extract text using OCR and post-processing technology to read text information in product images.

In addition, to solve the accessibility problem of existing payment modules that wouldn’t allow screen readers due to security programs, Sori Market supports a highly accessible in-app payment system and a review sharing community ‘Sori Village’ that allows sharing of reviews between blind users. This allows the blind to shop online independently without other people’s help.

I was not even aware of the existence of screen readers in smartphones. It seems like there is a limit to the existing screen readers, making it difficult for the blind to obtain detailed information. Sori Market opens the way for the blind to shop independently. We hope more companies and brands join Sori Market.

There might be a limit to delivering image information through sound. How does Waddle overcome these limits?

Currently, it is difficult to deliver non-text information like the color or texture of the product because of the limit in current technology. In addition, screen readers cannot deliver the size, font, position of the text in the image, so it makes it difficult for the blind to understand the context.

Thus, Sori Market was not developed to simply deliver the text in images, but focused on accurately delivering the information. Sori Market was designed for users to easily and quickly access the desired data by grouping text based on the paragraph composition and context, filtering unnecessary information, and classifying to which title a text belongs.

In addition, we research AI engines that extract the characteristics of products to guide non-textual information such as color or texture, and provide optimized speech interfaces.

Focusing on delivering the product accurately would be more beneficial to the blind. From the perspective of receiving information, it is more convenient to filter unnecessary information to purchase products. In particular, it is not easy for the blind to perceive information and also go through the payment process, but Sori Market will become a strong advantage. Continuously communicating through reviews and supplementing the interface will lead to a better service in the future.

Waddle is a technology-based startup as well as a social enterprise. Since Waddle targets a specific audience, there may be difficulties in profit aspects. Is there a strategy to strike a balance between the two?

Starting with the digital gap problem that blind people face, Waddle will continue to research and develop intuitive UXs that can embrace all the digitally underprivileged who are not used to the online environment. We will expand our business so more and more people will be able to use Waddle’s service. In addition, the technologies and services that help those who cannot easily use innovative technology will surely become helpful for everyone, and in this process profit will naturally follow. To achieve this vision, Waddle is developing intuitive voice interface solutions based on AI technology, and will prove that technology for the underprivileged can benefit everyone.

In the current digital era, everyone should benefit from technology, but there are surprisingly a lot of people who are underprivileged. Waddle is transforming the technology for the underprivileged using AI technology. As CEO Park said, we hope Waddle’s service develops and expands to the global market, becoming more available to everyone.

The Waddle team participated in E*5 KAIST, and also participated in another company’s venture program. What are some differences between programs by schools and companies? How can we improve startup support programs like E*5 KAIST?

Waddle participated in 2018 Spring E*5 KAIST and also won an award. I remember creating a team and quickly selecting the startup item to participate in the program. At that time, I didn’t know much about startups, but E*5 KAIST was an opportunity to learn about the customer discovery phase and how to create a service. The program was a valuable opportunity to receive support as an early startup team, such as office space in W8 (Startup KAIST), networking with startup seniors, and MVP production through Idea Factory.

The biggest advantage and difference of participating in programs by large companies or institutions after officially launching the service are the infrastructure they provide, like huge financial support and independent space. In addition, we receive support for business expansion and commercialization opportunities, such as investment attraction, scale-up, and legal advices.

In my opinion, rather than improving E*5 KAIST, I would like to tell people that startup teams can first participate in school startup support programs to gain basic knowledge and experience, then participate in programs by large companies or institutions to officially expand the business.

E*5 KAIST is the easiest way for undergraduates to try out startups. Startup support programs by companies is an opportunity for startup teams to scale-up after growing with school startup programs. If you are interested in startups, it is a good idea to first participate in school programs, then challenge in large-scale company startup support programs.

Waddle recently moved the office from Daejeon to Seoul. What are some advantages?

The headquarters is still located in Daejeon, and Waddle continues to interact with KAIST, startup-related institutions, and other Daejeon-based startups. We recently had an opportunity to move-in to a shared office in Seoul, and now most members work in Seoul. One of the advantages of moving to Seoul is that we became closer to other companies, startup institutions, and investment companies, and there are more opportunities for networking. In addition, we can meet many startups at similar stages to share and give advice on business ideas.

Having two offices in Daejeon and Seoul allows more opportunities for networking, and makes travelling easier! This sounds like a beneficial for entrepreneurs to work more efficiently.

What is Waddle’s next goal and future development item?

Waddle’s next goal is to develop an audio interface and related AI technology based on Sori Market to create a voice shopping platforms for all digitally underprivileged, such as the blind, the elderly, and people with development disabilities. Using the data accumulated on Sori Market, such as the review sharing community ‘Review Village’, we hope to develop a service that allows convenient search, curation, customer service, and payment through audio.

What is Waddle’s ultimate goal?

Waddle’s mission is to make technology more available to people, and create a technology that can benefit everyone. Starting with an online shopping platform ‘Sori Market’ for the blind, we will grow into a company that continuously develops audio-based inclusive designs and related AI technology to provide various audio interface solutions.

Waddle dreams of a digital world where everyone can enjoy and use technology easily. We look forward to contributing to this through Waddle’s intuitive audio interface.

Waddle develops technology that targets the digitally underprivileged as customers. Sori Market, an online shopping platform that uses machine learning to read details of products, allows for the blind to enjoy online shopping independently. We believe Waddle will reduce the digital gap between the underprivileged and the general public. For everyone to benefit from technology like Waddle’s ultimate goal, more companies like Waddle must arise. We support and look forward to Waddle’s global voice shopping platform!

This was CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle.