Paul Safi knows what it’s like to want more independence.
The third-year Carleton University student, who is legally blind, moved away from his family home when he was 17 to make his own way in life. Less than three years later, he co-founded a startup with the goal of helping people with other types of disabilities do the same.
Mr. Safi is the North American chief operating officer of ReAble, a financial technology firm that’s developing an application that will help people with autism, Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities conduct transactions and manage their finances. It aims to simplify and visualize the complex concepts of banking and finance and guide users step-by-step through processes in a way that’s tailored to their specific needs and challenges.
“We want to build tools that will help them gain independence in their lives, and we found this problem to be particularly important,” says Mr. Safi. “There’s very limited capacity for these individuals to figure out the value of money and associate a number with how it may impact them.”
It’s estimated that between one and three per cent of people have an intellectual disability, amounting to as many as 200 million people worldwide. Mr. Safi says that’s a lot of people who aren’t being adequately served by the world’s financial services industry.
“Without our application, banking would be almost impossible for them,” he says. “That’s a huge market that’s not being capitalized on by the banks … The idea of this is very valuable.”
The firm surveyed more than 100 families and therapists of individuals with intellectual disabilities while conducting its research and found that financial literacy was the second-most prominent challenge among respondents, behind communication.
“We asked them, ‘Based on the features that we’ve described, would you switch to a bank that offers this app?’ Ninety-five per cent of them said yes,” says Mr. Safi.
ReAble is planning to white-label its technology to banks, which would then offer the technology to its customers with bank accounts. In South Africa alone, Mr. Safi estimates the market value to be about US$20 million in monthly bank fees.
The firm has been establishing a proof of concept with financial backing from Barclays subsidiary Absa Bank, and it’s preparing to enter a four-month pilot stage.
Because intellectual disabilities are more common in low-income countries, ReAble is focusing on first establishing a presence in the developing world, which Mr. Safi estimates contains about 70 per cent of the company’s total potential market.
ReAble was one of 10 companies selected from a pool of 400 applicants to participate in a Cape Town-based accelerator program backed by Barclays Africa and U.S.-based Techstars. Mr. Safi says the networks the company accessed through the program have been critical in beginning to form relationships with banks around the world.
Mr. Safi expects the company’s initial launch to happen next summer, while a wide-scale release would follow in about a year from now.
It’ll take roughly $300,000 in startup costs to get to that point, he says. On the other hand, he estimates that a single contract to have a bank adopt the firm’s technology would result in at least $5 million in revenue.
“It’s not going to be just a simple app that helps a few people. It’s going to be a banking standard,” says Mr. Safi. “There’s lots of legislation out there (regarding) access for people with disabilities. So our app could really be the one piece of technology that every bank should have.”