Profile: 2014 Powerful Answers Education Award Winner Sesame Enable

The co-founder of the education award winner explains how his company’s gesture-based software is changing the lives of those who can’t use touchscreens.

By on February 13, 2015

Photo credit: Basti Hansen

Verizon is now accepting ideas for the 2015 Powerful Answers Award 

Expanding its ongoing commitment to innovation and social responsibility, we are currently accepting submissions for the chance to win up to $1,000,000 in prize money. Enter here by June 18th, 2015: verizon.com/powerfulanswers/award/

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Touchscreen technology has put the world literally at our fingertips. But for 35 million paralyzed people worldwide – including more than 600,000 children – using their hands isn’t an option. Sesame Enable co-founders Oded Ben Dov and Giora Livne teamed up to find a touch-free solution, leading to technology that made them the winners of the 2014 Verizon Powerful Answers Award in the education category, which includes one million dollars in funding.

Oded spent the first part of his career as a mobile software developer, creating games that could be controlled with head gestures. One day after demonstrating his gesture technology on Israeli TV, he received a call from Giora, a 65-year-old engineer who had become paralyzed from the neck down nine years earlier. Giora had watched Oded’s demonstration and seen possibilities far beyond gaming.

“Giora realized the potential this technology could have for people like him,” recalls Oded. “He called me up and said: ‘I can’t move my hands, I can’t move my legs. Can you make me a smartphone I can use?’ That was really the starting gun for Sesame.”

“The kids always nail it the first time.”

The two combined forces to create Sesame Enable, a touch-free smartphone and tablet that allows users to operate a cursor using head gestures instead of their hands. “I knew gesture technology, I knew the mobile world. But Giora knew the need,” says Oded. Together, they were able to develop the phone’s sensitivities and settings to work for users with a range of conditions, including multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries, brain injuries and cerebral palsy.

“You have to see the people to understand how huge of a difference it makes,” says Oded. He’s seen firsthand the change in quality of life that happens when users are able to text a loved one for the first time, or make their first private phone call. “It’s a huge leap forward,” he says.

Some of Sesame Enable’s most enthusiastic early users have been children, who quickly embrace the access and independence the phone gives them. “The kids always nail it the first time,” observes Oded. “They get it.” He vividly remembers the first time he brought the phone to Ori, a young boy without the use of his hands. “The first time I brought him the phone, I let him play ‘Angry Birds’. While I was talking to his therapist, he had already gone into my app store and tried to purchase more birds. He did it totally independently, the first time using the phone. I said: ‘That’s it. Game over. The boy knows how to use a smartphone!’”

Oded and Giora brought their proposal to the Verizon Powerful Answers contest after seeing the difference the competition made for one 2013 winner, TinyTap, another Israeli company dedicated to developing technology for children with special needs. They saw the huge difference securing funding could make for a small and developing enterprise.

“In a space like special needs, funding is always a bit more difficult to find,” says Oded. “A lot of people will smile and wish you well, but not a lot of investors will put their money behind it.” When the news came in that Sesame Enable was, in fact, the winner of Verizon’s Powerful Answers Education award, Oded recalls, “It was amazing. I was literally jumping around my house.” The prize meant not only secure funding, but also “peace of mind” to Oded, who will now be able to focus on developing and distributing the phone instead of fundraising.

“Of all the companies I could wish for, Verizon is the most amazing partner. They are supportive of us, both in terms of the prize and actual development of disability programs. It’s a huge opportunity,” says Oded. He plans to use the prize to further refine the phone and get it into the hands of those who need it most, all while expanding his three-person team.

“I hope through Verizon to reach all the people who will benefit,” says Oded. “I had one man who told us that he’d been waiting for this project for 15 years. Now we have funding to make this dream come true.”

Tags: Sesame Enable, Verizon Powerful Answers Award, Oded Ben Dov, Giora Livne, Smartphone, Touch- free gestures