Aira, the San Diego startup that has developed technology that connects blind and visually impaired people with a sighted agent to assist them with common activities, announced Feb. 20 it would offer the service free to job seekers.
The company uses glasses equipped with a camera to feed video to a trained agent, who guides the user through interactions with which they have requested assistance. For a monthly fee, Aira subscribers get access to nearly 100 agents who provide "eyes on demand."
People have used Aira to help them with activities including ordering from a restaurant menu, using public transportation and navigating the workplace.
Discovering how Aira helped those in the workplace played a role in the company's decision to make its service free to blind and visually impaired job seekers, according to Suman Kanuganti, cofounder and CEO.
Buy-in from businesses will be essential for the company to make daily life easier for those people - and reduce the stigma associated with employing blind and visually impaired people, he said.
"There are some concerns from the employer perspective," Kanuganti said. "A program like this will bring awareness and comfort to employers to focus more on the skills (of a prospective employees), not on the side effects of somebody's not having sight."
While the U.S. unemployment rate stands at about 4 percent, the rate for working-age adults who are blind is 70 percent, according to the National Federation of the Blind.
The company's long-term goal is to bring the percentage of blind or visually impaired people who are unemployed into the single digits, Kanuganti said.
"That's a big, audacious goal, but I think we have the platform - finally - to do something about it," he said.
The National Federation of the Blind estimates as many as 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired.
Aira said its subscribers, who the company calls Explorers, may now use it at no cost for job-search related activities. Examples the company gave included browsing online for jobs, filling out applications, writing a resume and traveling to and from job interviews.
In addition to helping users find employment and employers become more familiar with Aira, Kanuganti said the Aira Employment Program is also intended to demonstrate the potential benefit of the service to businesses' bottom lines.
Aira allows businesses to draw a digital boundary around their place of business, referred to as a geofence, and offer customers the service for free within that space.
Were enough companies to buy in, the service - which subscribers pay for monthly based on how many minutes they use - would become more affordable for individuals.
Monthly rates start at $89 for 100 minutes.
Some airports have begun to offer Aira to travelers: The Houston Airport System this year agreed to cover the cost of minutes used by Aira subscribers within its airport terminals through the end of 2018.
Some college campuses, libraries and downtown areas are also considering signing up, Kanuganti said.
"We want to make the entire world accessible," he said.
Aira, founded in 2014, was formerly housed at EvoNexus. Recently, it relocated to another La Jolla office. Aira employs about 40 people.
Last year the company raised a $12 million Series B financing in 2017, led by Jazz Venture Partners and Arboretum Ventures. Participants included existing investors Lux Capital, ARCH Venture Partners and Felicis Ventures. Strategic investors include the National Federation of the Blind.
Reach startups and finance reporter Sarah de Crescenzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.