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Alwar Pillai, CEO and co-founder of Fable, an accessibility platform, says the Toronto startup is 'focusing on companies that have large digital teams and billions of users.'Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fable Tech Labs Inc., a fast-growing Toronto startup that helps companies make their digital products more usable by people with accessibility challenges, has raised US$10.5-million in venture capital.

The funding was led by Kansas City-based Five Elms Capital and backed by Difference Partners and past investor Disruption Ventures as well as Toronto financier John Ruffolo, who uses a wheelchair after a near-fatal traffic accident in 2020.

Fable has quickly established itself as a go-to startup for large clients including Microsoft Corp. MSFT-Q, Facebook parent Meta Platform Inc. FB-Q, Shopify Inc. SHOP-T, Slack Technologies LLC, Walmart Inc. WMT-N and Telus Corp. T-T to ensure their digital offerings don’t neglect visually impaired users or those with mobility issues.

“We’re focusing on companies that have large digital teams and billions of users,” chief executive Alwar Pillai said. “We think that by helping them, we’re unlocking access to many more users on the net.”

Ms. Pillai and chief operating officer Abid Virani co-founded Fable in 2018, a year after graduating with Masters of Inclusive Design degrees from the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Ms. Pillai said she wrote her masters’ thesis on how to design technology for seniors and how digital tools could play a role in ensuring that they don’t feel socially isolated.

Her early work experience, including stints as an accessibility expert for the Ontario Education Ministry and as a user-experience designer for Rogers Communications Inc., left her realizing companies rarely put in practice the “ideal experience” for customers who have accessibility challenges that she learned about in school.

“I just saw the deficit of how we are building products,” she said.

“What I noticed was everyone was talking accessibility and trying to make products accessible, but no one with a disability was in the room offering their perspective. … For me, it was core to make sure that we’re bringing diverse perspectives into the product and work in progress so people are more aware and can make more informed decisions. Ultimately, if you have a more inclusive process, you’ll have an accessible product.”

Fable offers a subscription service, contracting hundreds of people with disabilities to research and test products as they’re being developed by its clients. The users share their feedback over Fable’s Engage platform, which the startup’s clients then review to determine how to improve the accessibility features of their products. Fable typically charges clients tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Mr. Ruffolo said that when he looked at the space, he realized the market for products and services to help accessibility-challenged users was “bigger than I thought,” covering not only hearing and visually impaired but also stroke survivors, people with Parkinson’s and aging users. He made the investment personally. “It’s a massive market and it will be bigger because of the aging of the population.”

Microsoft began working with Fable last year. “The partnership started with Fable working with us to do accessibility user research of Microsoft sites and services, and has grown to include learning modules around how developers with disabilities can use Microsoft products to do their best work,” said Dona Sarkar, director of technology at Microsoft Accessibility.

“Working with an organization that shares the same passion around developer accessibility that Microsoft does has been invigorating, which is why we are so excited for Fable’s latest fundraising news,” she added.

Microsoft is one of a few tech giants including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. that have added accessibility features to their products. For example, they’ve introduced automated captioning and voice-over screen readers to describe images in videos and photos. Microsoft has also offered eye-controlled tablet software as well as hardware alternatives to the keyboard, mouse and game controller to help mobility-challenged people that struggle with standard navigation tools.

Still, online tech journal Engadget said last December in its annual industry accessibility report, that “major organizations continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities.”

Five Elms partner Austin Gideon said in an interview that be believes accessibility considerations in technology development “may be where [data protection] and privacy was a decade before European mandates changed the whole landscape. I think, historically, accessibility had maybe been viewed as reactionary,” whereby companies only reacted to lawsuits or complaints.

But given that an estimated 15 per cent of users need some kind of assistance using technology, companies “really view [engaging Fable] as a revenue opportunity” to grow their potential market, Mr. Gideon added.

He predicted Fable, which has also started offering video courses for companies to design more accessible products, could rapidly grow its revenues. They are currently running in the low to mid-single-digit millions of dollars annually, to between US$50-million and US$100-million in the next five years.

“We’re incredibly impressed with the financial performance” of the 60-person business and its growth potential, he said.

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