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A serious encounter with Ménière’s disease partway through his PhD studies was a life-changing event in more ways than one for Arash Tayebi.
The inner ear disorder resulted in him losing the hearing in one ear and facing up to the possibility he could become deaf in the future. Studying at Auckland University, and feeling far from his home in Iran, he says the experience hit him hard.
But Arash turned one of the biggest challenges in his life into an opportunity. He became the driving force behind Kara Technologies, an award-winning start-up using digital sign language avatars to make communications of all kinds accessible to those with hearing issues.
His own situation made him question the noticeable lack of deaf people studying at universities, becoming entrepreneurs, and holding leadership positions in the workplace. “I asked myself if I become completely deaf will I not be able to succeed in study and work?”
Engaging with the Deaf community he learned of the real shortage of teachers of sign language, and the complexities in resolving that. Bringing in teachers from overseas is not the answer because they do not know New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Closed captioning, which can automatically caption speech is of limited use as young children cannot read, and existing avatars are not expressive enough for Deaf people.
“I said let’s work together to come up with a solution.”
Turning a vision into reality
What started as a small project with Kelston Deaf Education Centre, now part of Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education New Zealand, ultimately morphed into Kara Technologies. But it took vision, determination, and “mind-blowing” support from people he met along the start-up journey.
“The cool thing about New Zealand is that if you have a vision nobody will call you crazy, they’re here to help and happy to take a risk. That’s fantastic.“
“There was so much I needed to learn about running a business. I wasn’t rich, so I needed funding. And as the concept was new, I needed the support of the Deaf community.”
Arash’s first break came when Kara Technologies was named Social Enterprise winner in Auckland University’s start-up business competition Velocity $100K Challenge in 2017, giving him access to seed funding and a mentorship programme. Then there was UniServices, which helps to commercialise promising student ventures through investment, advice, and connections. And in the wider community there was GridAKL, an innovation support community with a downtown campus. “If I had a problem, I could always find someone there who was happy to offer advice,” he says.
Estimates of NZSL users vary significantly, from about 4000 for whom it is a first language to more than 20,000 who have some knowledge of it. Arash and his team are committed to their vision of improving meaningful access to information for the Deaf community, and they are already making an impact.
Kara Technologies has produced a diverse suite of avatars, signed children’s books and a range of videos. It has been recognised many times for its innovative work, most recently being named a 2022 finalist in the Public Good category at the NZ Hi-Tech Awards.
Looking to the future
The team at Kara sees a future where TV shows, bank machines, travel websites, online registration forms, live theatre, social media, gaming, and virtual reality technologies are all equipped with sign language avatars. “We want the daily life of a Deaf person to be as easy as a hearing person,” Arash says.
The company is currently trialling emergency messaging by using a set of pre-recorded motion-captured animations, making it possible to relay time-critical information quickly.
Kara is already attracting interest in the US and Canada, where Deaf advocates are excited by the technology. “They are impressed that a small country can make such a contribution. It makes me proud because I call New Zealand home.”
Arash says it’s hard to believe the decision he made to come to New Zealand to study in 2013 has led to where he is now. “I thought I would probably complete my PhD and end up in an academic teaching role. But I have a company, a team, a vision, and fantastic friends. It’s all happened because of the great support I’ve received here.”
He only wishes it was easier for innovators like him to stay on when they finished their studies. He would love New Zealand to introduce a Talent visa like Australia and Canada have. “If you have a cool project they will welcome you, but in New Zealand, you need to secure a job. I already have a job, but it is in my own company,” he says.
“When New Zealand encourages international students to come here it needs to be able to harness their talent, nurture them, and benefit from their talent.”
But Arash says he would always encourage students to come here. “Take yourself out of your comfort zone and you will meet amazing people. New Zealand is a crazy, creative country which could easily be your second home.”