Going to the movies can be very enjoyable, for most people. It’s something we all do without giving a second thought, but for some, it can be a much more complicated, even harrowing, experience. People who are visually impaired, hard of hearing or deaf have a tough break when it comes to the theater. They have to show up 20 minutes early, find the manager, rent an accessibility device, sign their name, and sometimes give over their driver’s license as collateral. It’s an unfair situation and one that Alex Koren is trying to fix. In early December 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Alex about his ingenious and innovative company Actiview and pick his brain about how he believes today’s technology will shape our future.
Who is Alex Koren
Ever wondered what it’s like to create and run your very own business at the age of 22? Well, Alex Koren has done just that. The self-proclaimed “problem solver”, Alex dropped out of college with support from the Thiel fellowship. A $100,000 fellowship given by Peter Thiel himself, the fellowship asks its recipients to drop out of education to pursue projects of their choice for two years. The rules are simple: Stay out of school, don’t get a job at a larger company and solve big problems. It’s a rare and exciting opportunity that Alex proved he was worthy of receiving.
Alex started his fellowship working at a startup where he focused on the electric vehicle space. From there he moved into consulting, helping people build technology, raise money and work on their strategy.
During our interview, Alex said “I wanted to not only work on something that was my own but something that I really thought mattered. Something that I thought was really important to be built that nobody was really looking at. I wanted to serve an underserved problem space and I came across the visually impaired and hard of hearing, and their need for accessible tools.” This is when he started his work on Actiview.
What is Actiview?
Actiview is an accessibility service for theaters that provides audio narration, closed captioning, and amplified audio all directly to your smartphone. Alex Koren and his co-founder Braun Shedd, incorporated Actiview this past April, although they started working on the tech and talking to people at the beginning of 2016.
The idea for the company came through a family friend of Alex’s, a man in his 60’s who required the use of an assistive listening device. He wanted to know why he couldn’t stream the audio through his iPhone instead of having to go through the pain of using equipment provided by the theaters. This is the question that started Alex on his mission to help the visually impaired and hard of hearing.
A few weeks on, Alex found Braun “an 18-year-old guy who happens to be a brilliant engineer, but also just a great mind in the way of strategy and working together.” Braun took to the project and said that if Alex could get one movie theater to let them test something in their projection booth he would join the company. Alex started cold calling every theater in the Bay area and the outer regions. He even tried contacting distributors of projection equipment to no avail. After weeks of reaching out to various people, he was finally put in contact with a projectionist who loves technology and said that he would allow them to test under certain limitations.
After reverse-engineering projection systems and building their first prototype, Alex and Braun started doing demonstrations in the Bay area with people who were visually impaired and hard of hearing. Possible investors and those who worked in the movie industry were also invited to see what it was that Alex and Braun were so passionate about. This is when they were introduced to Paul Cichocki, the head of post-production at Pixar. In Alex’s words, “when you look at the credits of a Pixar movie he is way up there.” Paul focused on everything that happened after the movie is fully developed. This includes accessibility services and distribution. Paul was sold and loved what Alex and Braun were doing, he left Pixar and joined the team full-time where he would work on business development. Paul became the third member of the team and helped the company connect with theaters, producers, and filmmakers. This was a major jump forward for the company.
Investing in the Company
For a business to be successful, you need people to invest. This is something that Alex and I talked about during our interview and he was very open about how he went about doing this. Alex explained, “There are a lot of ways to raise money and we took a different tactic that I have seen most people take”. He went on to say that for the first round of investing they wanted to raise “in a ballpark of a quarter of a million dollars for our first initial angel round.” As somebody who has never had to get people to invest in a company, this sounds like a very high mountain to climb.
When starting the process of raising this money Alex had the capability to go to a few small early stage funds and raise from them, but they needed more than money. “We started looking out for individuals that we thought were gonna be really passionate about this space and also strategically helpful to us.” They focused less on the financial viability of the business and more on the cause of the project, “you have money, put it to good use” which made perfect sense. The success of a business like this would not only make a profit but it would also help people who were looking for these specific services to be available to them with ease. This was a cause that Alex was passionate about, and although money is a factor in every business, Alex’s devotion and determination to the project was really shone through. The way he described it was “yes an investment, but almost towards a social cause.” He even goes further and adds, “I’m not going to lie to you and say that this is a multi-multi-billion dollar next Google because that will be bullshit. But we are here looking to create financial viability from helping people.” It’s clear to me that Alex’s attitude and drive are what has made him so successful in everything he has done.
Shaping our Technological Future
Everybody, no matter who it is, has their own idea of where the future of technology is headed. I wanted to find out what people in the industry are most excited about and the impact that they want to have on the vast field of technology. That is exactly what I spoke to Alex Koren about and I was really interested in his answers.
Technology is forever changing and will shape our lives for better and for worse. In Alex’s case, he is trying to shape the future so it makes a particular group of peoples lives better. When I asked him how feels technology is going to shape our future, he had some pretty interesting ideas.
He discussed how in the field of web and mobile development everything has become “extremely iterative versus actually having breakthroughs in technology”. How there are a few companies working on incredible technologies, for instance, self-driving, AI, space travel, alternative energy and automation companies. But, while not sure of the exact percentage, Alex ventured a guess that, “over 95% of silicon valley is working problems that are while nice to solve, don’t get me wrong I’m all for efficiency, are not really that hard to solve.” To explain a little further, Alex compared his views to the likes of Airbnb, saying how the company is not technologically difficult. “I have full respect for AirBnB, I love their model, I love what they have done, I love the growth and their story. It’s amazing. As a technology, it’s not that far forward.”
Alex believes that “we will see a big split between companies with high valuations really being the ones who are doing new things and the ones who are just doing these iterative things that can easily have competitors, kind of tapering off quite quickly.” He doesn’t know exactly where Actiview fits on that scale. The technology that himself and his partners are building is very difficult but he knows that “it’s no space travel.”
Where Technology gets Exciting
Some people could say that creating simpler accessibility units for the deaf, the visually impaired or the hard of hearing is too small of a problem. People like Alex and his partners at Actiview would argue that when you get extremely close to a problem that truly affects people, the change becomes enormous. The same can be argued with space travel and VR. Alex believes they seem too separate from his everyday life and says that he really loves what is happening in the vehicular industry in regards to self-driving and electric-powered cars as it is something that impacts him directly. “Everyday I am hoping into a car and going somewhere. Every day I am looking to shave time off. Every day I hear about car accidents. I just think to myself what a problem to solve, we could solve that.”
As we talk more on this subject Alex says that he feels, with self-driving cars taking the lead that “there will be a switch when we shift from more error prone to actually nearing this almost perfect system”. Alex wasn’t around for the mobile phone revolution. He didn’t get to see the communication industry transform. He saw the internet boom and people becoming connected in a way that was never there before, even though it existed before he was born. Alex believes, “the first thing that has happened during my career, is this kind of self-driving stuff that I am excited about. I am old enough to be a part of it and old enough to take a serious look at it and see through. So I am very excited about it.”
Impacting the Industry
Before I finished up the interview, I wanted to ask Alex what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world of technology? He was very quick to answer. “That’s an easy one. I want to solve problems that matter.” Going further he explains that he has spent such a long time building on his particular skillset and he has much more to learn, but he doesn’t want to waste his skills on something that won’t make an impact. “I understand that I’m not gonna be an engineer, probably in a few years from now, hopefully in a few months from now…I just hope I can spend my time and go to sleep every day saying I am working towards a better world not just a more efficient one because efficiency doesn’t always mean better.”
Alex clearly has his head screwed on. He knows exactly what he wants, where he is going and how he wants to shape the future of technology. As he puts it “I am happy to finally be working on something that is fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong, a nice paycheck at the end of the rainbow is fantastic but it’s by no means the only thing that has me here.”
During my interview with Alex, I found myself agreeing with everything he said and truly admiring his passion for his mission. I don’t know if it’s because we both have a love for technology or maybe because we both grew up in an age where technology advances are hard to ignore, but I have to agree with his comments on the future of the industry and concentrating on using technology to advance on issues that really need it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like a Samsung smart fridge as much as the next person but at the core, I agree with what he is saying. After talking to Alex, the one thing I am certain of is that there is a need for accessibility machines and he is passionately trying to help solve a problem that affects millions of people. In a world saturated with companies trying to come up with the next home gadget or popular app, Alex and his colleagues are using their talents to help others and no one can argue there is something very inspiring and motivating about that.
I want to wish Alex the best of luck as he continues to make a difference with Actiview, and in his own words, “work on something that really matters”.
You can follow Actiview on Twitter