Episode 55 Transcript

Published: Thursday July 11, 2024

Innovating for Accessibility | Dhaval Patel

Dhaval Patel’s Lotus Ring and Smart Home Technology


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to pushing forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia. And today we’ve got another amazing guest joining us from the technology world.

I love it. Bring me back to my old stomping grounds. He is an innovator, a leader, an emerging tech Titan, Dhaval Patel. Pleasure to be here. Thank you for being here. I’m so excited.

He is the founder and CEO of Lotus. His mission is to build technology that is useful to everyone by optimizing for disability first.

I love that this is your mission and it’s something that is massively important in the advocacy that we’re doing with disability inclusion. So thank you for tying that in number one, first and foremost. It’s so awesome.

I came across this quote that you included in a post last year on LinkedIn. I think it’s when you were winning an award for your technology from president Obama.

And it’s a quote that says, we don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. Welcome. And I want to know first and foremost, what does this quote mean to you?

Dhaval Patel: I mean, it’s, it’s all, they’re all variations of kind of our core mission statement, right? Which is, I really believe the best way to build technology to do hardware, and there’s plenty of examples of this, and we can talk more about this at length.

So I think, I think we’re in good company is the best way to help everybody is by optimizing for what a lot of people like to say, quote, corner case user. Which is just the diversity is the human condition. And so why not start there first, if you make something that someone with a disability or an older adult or a child can use, then it’s automatically small enough, easy enough, light enough, fast enough that anybody can use.

So why not do that first? Why not do that all the time? Why isn’t all technology made that way? And it’s really fine because there are tons of examples of this today. You know, if you, if you scroll down LinkedIn today, or you saw a video on TikTok, you probably came across closed captions. Right. We all use this technology all the time.

We don’t even think about it anymore. Or if you’re watching Netflix at home, but originally that technology in back in the 1970s was created for someone who was hard of hearing or who was deaf, but we all use it all the time. And there’s tons of examples of this from curb cuts to straws to keyboards.

And so why don’t we just make that the way everything is built and designed? And so yeah, the quote from President Obama, you know, lift as you climb, they’re all kind of part of the same thesis. And so that’s our thesis, which is to build tech that anybody can use by optimizing for disability first.

Alycia Anderson: So I want to hear a little bit about your connection to disability, whatever you’re comfortable with and what inspired you to walk down this path of technology that is inclusive.

Dhaval Patel: Yeah, absolutely.

Alycia Anderson: I was born with twisted knees, me and my brother, both actually, as it turns out. And over the years, I’ve been on and off crutches. And one night, a few years ago, I got into bed, having accidentally left the lights on. But I was too tired to get out of bed, hop onto my crutches, hobble 10 feet, turn off the light, hobble back 10 feet, and get back into bed.

So I just slept with the lights on the entire night. And woke up in the morning thinking, well, if someone like me, I’m an engineer, for those of you who don’t know, I’m an electric and aerospace engineer. I used to manage a division at Apple for iPhone Watch and AirPods. I have worked at the company that makes wall switches.

I’ve worked at Lutron. I have 37 patents. You know, if an engineer like me didn’t have smart home technology in their own home, who did? And around the same time, I had just come back from seeing Hamilton, speaking of quotes. And there’s this line in Hamilton, which is one of my favorites. What is legacy?

It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. And so I had this personal experience. I remember being at Apple and thinking, you know, 30 years from now. Apple makes fantastic products, I’ve learned a ton, so this is not a knock on them. But I remembered thinking 30 years from now, I doubt I’ll be talking to my grandkids saying, Hey, your granddad added the sixth camera on the iPhone.

Interesting, not necessarily the most meaningful. And so that was the start of this journey, which is my own situation and my own grappling with sort of my situation.

Part of the inspiration for your platform and your technology. I know you design towards the person centered design.

Can you eat too? And I don’t even correct me if I’m not articulating that in the right way. Can you talk with, talk to our listeners about what that means?

Dhaval Patel: It’s a great question. So person centered design or human centered design, the core philosophy is.

Who’s voices are typically left behind when you’re trying to design for whatever you’re trying to design? So whether that’s technology, whether that’s arts, whether that’s design in sort of the aesthetic sense, you know Whose voices are typically left behind and starting with them first? So starting with the human first or the human story at the core of the design and it’s funny I mentioned this I was convinced, you know, at some point we’ll end up talking about the technology.

I was convinced this was the worst idea in the world because I originally, I was thinking of it to solve just my own problem. And so what I did for the first nine months, I quit my job and no other, you know, it was only focused on this. And for the first nine months, all I did was I felt strongly about this mission statement, but wasn’t sure if the thing I was about to build for myself made sense for everybody else.

Why would I make that assumption? And so the core of human centered design is just talking to your end users, your potential end users. And so in my head, I started thinking, okay, well, let me not tell anybody about my idea. I’m just going to interview people. That’s it. So for the first nine months, all I did was interview people with all kinds of different disabilities and no disabilities.

So people who were, had limited mobility, were blind, deaf, cognitive disabilities, behavioral learning disabilities, their family members, and some clinicians. And for the first nine months, that’s all I did. The interviews were really long.

And only at the, in the last hour on the last day, would I share the idea. And if they were interested, I would consider working on it. And so that’s the crux of human centered design, which is, you don’t start with the solution first. You start with their stories, and by extension, their problems first. And you go work backwards from there to see if you can solve it in a way that makes sense to the end user.

That’s the core of human centered design, which is essentially capturing voices that are missed.

Alycia Anderson: I love that. And it’s like putting your, feet in somebody else’s shoes, learning their story, solving for that. And what I also love is that it’s not just the disabled end user, but it’s their caregivers.

It’s their family members. It’s the, their allies, the people that are around them that also could use support in the path as well. It has multi layers of stakeholders.

Dhaval Patel: You stole the word I was about to say. Essentially in, in typical design methodology, you’re talking to all stakeholders, not just one, but you’re talking to all stakeholders who have skin in the game, so to speak, right? They all care about the success of this. And so you want to talk to all of them and understand what are each of their pain points because they may not be the same.

They might be connected, but they’re not all the same. And so how do you solve for all of that simultaneously?

Alycia Anderson: And then you developed Lotus. Talk a little bit. I’m sure that our community is like, what is this? What is it? You talk a little bit about the product, like what its functionality is and what you’re solving for.

Dhaval Patel: Absolutely. So, in a nutshell, for people with limited mobility, to start, we’ve made a wearable ring that controls objects at home by pointing. But, unlike, say, Alexa, there’s no apps. No rewiring and no internet needed.

Alycia Anderson: That is incredible alone. I watched multiple of your YouTube videos and the fact that you’re kind of taking all of those extra pieces away.

And it’s just that simple is actually unbelievable and incredible. So give us an example.

Dhaval Patel: Yeah, so let’s start, let’s start from the problem first. So let’s say you wanted Alexa to control your lights today. By the way, 91 percent of homes in the U. S. were built before smartphones existed. But there’s no easy way to upgrade, right?

If you wanted Alexa to control your lights today, the very first step is you would have to rewire the wall switch that connects to the internet, right? You would have to rewire any wall switch to connect to the internet to be able to talk to Alexa to begin with. That’s step one. Step two, wherever you rewired your home, you’d have to put a smart speaker.

So you’d have to put a smart speaker in your kitchen, your bathroom, your bedroom, everywhere that you’ve just rewired. That’s step two. Step three, if you got through steps one and two, you’d have to pair every switch one by one through another app. And just the first step, for getting steps two and three, just the first step takes 11 hours or 2, 000.

And this is all best case, if you own the home. If you’re renting an apartment, there’s no solution. If you’re traveling, for work or for pleasure, there’s no solution. And so, it affects everyone, but it disproportionately affects people like me. About 27 million people with limited mobility. We’re talking veteran soldiers, older adults, disabled persons.

Who can spend up to an extra three and a half to four hours at home every day on self care. So in a nutshell, to solve this, we created Lotus. Now, the way it works.

Step one, you put on the ring and there’s just a single button on the ring. Now putting on the ring eliminates the need to put a smart speaker everywhere because the ring stays with you wherever you go.

So that’s step one. Step two for any existing wall switch. And for those of you watching on camera, I’m showing just one example here. Regardless of what the wall switch controls, step two is you just bring the Lotus switch cover nearby and it snaps on using magnets.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah, and let’s pause for a minute. So for those of you that are not watching He literally took the mechanism and it snaps on almost like a magnet.

Dhaval Patel: It is exactly a magnet. There are two magnets on the back. And so there’s no rewiring. It just goes on top of your existing switch.

So step two. On top of any of your existing wall switches, you can snap this Lotus switch cover on magnetically.

And the use of magnets means there’s no rewiring. So there’s no rewiring at all. Now you can also walk up to the switch and use it like a regular wall switch. So if I press this button, you’ll notice the light turns on and off. So other people in the house can still use it. But the best part is, step three, all you do is point and click.

So pushing the button on the ring turns on and off that specific wall switch. And so with this, essentially, you have converted any space into an accessible space, literally in seconds. I mean, this thing takes maybe two seconds or three seconds. But more importantly, you can also take it with you wherever you go, because everything I said is just portable.

And so with this, you can control lights, fans, appliances, and TVs, because we’re using infrared.

Alycia Anderson: So how is this being received?

What is the The timing with, with the launch.

Dhaval Patel: It’s a great question. So to answer both questions, we’re launching in about three months to, to date, all we’ve been doing again, part of human centered design is you never build something in isolation. So of course the first step is to talk and get these voices that are typically been forgotten.

But you don’t do that once you do that in iterations. So we build prototypes, we give it back. You build prototypes and give it back. And to the point you were making about caregivers. One of the first mistakes we made, and again, this is how, this is the reason for iterations. The first time we made these walled switches, there was no button on the front.

It was just a, an infrared receiver and a little battery operated motor, right? It’s all it’s doing is physically pushing the wall switch. And very quickly, the first piece of feedback we got was, this is fantastic. I love it, but my family member or my significant other hates this. Because now you’ve covered up that wall switch and nobody else in the house can use it.

Can you please add some buttons or something? So we did. We added two small buttons. gave it back and immediately the next piece of feedback we got was, okay, this is great. Other people in the house can use it, but the buttons are really small. Can you make them larger? So we just changed it. So the entire front surface is now a button.

So that’s, that’s part of the human centered design. To answer your original question, we launch in three months. And you can go on the website now, get lotus. com and put yourself on the wait list. We’re not even accepting money at the moment. But you can get on the wait list. And then once we launch in September, it’s first come first serve.

Alycia Anderson: I love it. I’m so excited to see how your launch goes and how this is received.

Dhaval Patel: So we, we have won four or five separate awards.

The largest one was last week at an older adult conference. The biggest one that we’ve probably won today is South by Southwest. We won in their smart home category segment. We just recently won a grant from the government from NIDILRR National Institute on Disability, Independent Living Research and Rehabilitation.

That was a grant for a hundred thousand dollars from the government. So that was really, it was a great vote of confidence. And the feedback we’ve gotten from users is probably the most moving. Which we, I don’t have the form in front of me, but there’s a summary page and you can score us on zero to 10, 10 being the highest.

We got 10s on everything from ease of use to how much it’s helping in daily life. The only thing got a nine on, nine is still good, was how much did this reduce your risk of falling? And so that was nine out of 10, but everything else from, would you recommend this to friends and family to how much do you love it?

Everything was a 10.

Alycia Anderson: I can’t wait to try it myself. That’s awesome. Thank you. Congratulations. Thank you.

So I know that you do speaking and advocacy on accessibility, universal design, barrier free, the benefits of all of that, the return on investment. And I do a lot of that in my work and in my speaking as well.

For the companies that are listening to this right now, like, can talk a little bit about. The benefits of really moving into a disability centered, disability focused, innovative mindset when you’re creating.

Dhaval Patel: Yeah, so the, the notion, especially in startups, And you know, I’m in Silicon Valley, very common, incorrect notion exists that if you’re doing social impact or social good, those are not venture backable or venture scalable.

It’s not going to scale. There’s only charitable. And the thing I would love to encourage folks to see it, especially the creators, the lens I would encourage them to see it from is. If you make something that is simple enough for a child to use. That’s going to be simple enough for an adult to use and simple enough for an older adult to use. The same concept exists with all disability technologies.

So if you’re an investor and knowing what you know today, which is how prevalent the example I gave in the beginning, closed captions is. If you knew what you knew today, and I took you back to 1972, the very first time it showed up, which was on Julia Child’s TV show.

Alycia Anderson: Fun fact. Yeah. I like it. I’m going to use that. Thank you.

Dhaval Patel: Yeah. Julia Child, would you choose to invest in this technology? And I think knowing what we know now, I don’t think you’d meet anyone who would say, I would not invest in this. And yet if you asked the investors or the creators. Back in 1972, would you invest in this technology? Anyone who came up to you would say, this is for such a quote, niche market, or it’s only for people with disabilities of this type of disability. Nobody else is ever going to use it.

And that’s, that’s the mold. I would love to break,

and so it very much is possible. And that’s the way to do it. That’s the way to build the best products personally.

Alycia Anderson: If you’re not looking at a business model this way today in 2024, you’re leaving money on the table among so many other things that you’re leaving out from a humanity perspective, you know, so it’s the it’s the path of least resistance like thinking about all abilities.

It’s the easiest way to use products and services and technologies. And and it’s just incredible how almost difficult it is to have that shift.

Dhaval Patel: You know, that was part of the reason why I was convinced this was the stupidest idea in the world, and so for those folks who are listening and are still skeptical, I can provide very tactical benefits.

Alycia Anderson: So what

are some of the key lessons that you’ve learned

from this journey that might help others?

Dhaval Patel: Yeah. Don’t listen to the answers. Lean on your friends and don’t, don’t be scared to try something new.

Alycia Anderson: And as disabled people, we’re the first doing a lot of stuff a lot of times.

Dhaval Patel: I mean, really, who is more of a trailblazer than someone charting their own path through the sort of non social model of disability world around us than someone with a disability, right?

They’re blazing every day, day in and day out, all day, every day. Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: Okay, so how, did we miss anything that is important that we need to make sure that we cover? I want to make sure that we don’t miss anything.

Dhaval Patel: Yeah, most of them, some, some technology specific questions that I very often get, so I’ll preemptively answer.

How do you control different things without an app? Well, part of the reason to use infrared was only the thing you were pointed to will turn on and off. So you can have many things in the same room, you can have many switches, you can have a TV in front of you and a switch to your left and a switch to the right, and only the thing you’re pointed to with your ring will turn on and off.

The second question we get commonly is what’s the battery life like? And so, unlike an Apple watch that has to be charged every day, or one of the health rings that are out there that use that need charging every three days, you only need to charge this ring once every 90 days.

The ring and the switch covered because it’s only taking power for the 50 milliseconds that you push the button the rest of the time. It’s not taking power

Alycia Anderson: I like it. Good for the environment. Thank you for that. Tell our audience how to find you, follow you, and learn more about this. Amazing software. Thanks.

Yeah. If you want to get on the wait list or, you know, if a loved one that might benefit from this, go to get Lotus. com that’s G E T. L O T U S dot com, it’s the same handle. You can follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook Twitter, and or just reach out to us.

And so, yeah, you can take a look at YouTube as well. You can follow us for more demo videos and the like, but yeah, or reach out to us at hello at get lotus. com.

We have a pushing forward moment at the end of every show.

We like to ask our guests if they’ve got a little mantra or something that they can give away to our listeners to motivate them or inspire them a pushing forward moment. Do you have something that you could share with us?

Dhaval Patel: Yeah, this is a bit, this is quite personal. So I will take a moment to collect myself.

There’s a phrase in Hindi. So I was actually born in India and raised in Dubai and then came to the States to go to Georgia Tech undergrad and masters. And so it’s a phrase in Hindi. I’ll translate it, and the mantra I use is bas chalna hai, rukna nahi hai.

And I say that to myself over and over. And what it means is. Just keep walking. Stopping is not an option. Just keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter if you pause, if you’ve taken two steps back, just get up, keep moving forward. And it’s getting back on the horse that’s more important than anything else.

Alycia Anderson: That is amazing. Keep moving forward. Beautiful. Thank you so much for your time and for your innovative mind and the gifts that you are giving all of us in this world. To be able to access things easier and more intuitively.

I cannot wait to be one of your customers and it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you today. I think hopefully friends forever now. Absolutely. . It’s it’s like talking to a kindred spirit. I’m so glad we got connected. For whatever, I’m going to do a plug for you. Please watch Alycia’s TEDx talk.

It is brilliant and wonderful. I’ve seen it. It’s awesome. I really do mean it when I say it feels like talking to a kindred spirit. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here. Thank you, Alycia.

Oh, same, same. Thank you so much. I appreciate the plug. This has been Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how we roll on this podcast.

We will see you next time.