David Schleppenbach wins Rising Entrepreneur Mira Award
Lafayette, Ind.-based Tactile Engineering CEO Dave Schleppenbach, a serial entrepreneur, inventor and tireless advocate for people with disabilities, won the Rising Entrepreneur Award during TechPoint’s 24th annual Mira Awards gala honoring the best of tech in Indiana.
Dave Schleppenbach seemed reluctant to champion himself as the potential 2023 TechPoint Mira Rising Entrepreneur of the Year, but his team had nominated him, and a video had to be made.
What he is enthusiastic about is the potential for Tactile Engineering to bring equity and opportunity to blind and visually impaired people around the globe. He’s championed that cause for more than 20 years.
Millions of blind people across the world, including tens of thousands in Indiana, lack adequate access to educational materials created with braille and tactile graphics, which contributes to literacy rates below 5 percent. College graduation rates are less than half of that of the sighted population, and more than 50 percent are unemployed.
Schleppenbach believes access to education could reverse those numbers and dramatically improved lives. His pioneering work culminated last year in the production of the world’s first affordable, mass-produced tactile graphics display and tablet computer for the blind.
That innovation, along with his life’s work and the heartfelt endorsement of a team that’s been with him since the beginning, led him beyond the potential of being the Rising Entrepreneur of the Year, to claim the actual trophy.
Schleppenbach’s journey began at Purdue University where he was troubled by the struggles of two blind students who could not get adequate educational materials to succeed in the classroom. He created a content development lab in the Chemistry Department and produced accessible college-level STEM content for the blind. He learned three separate braille codes, coded new software to make math braille content, and began improving technology and access for people with disabilities while also working on a Chemistry PhD.
As he often tells those he mentors, entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It requires dedication, commitment and passion, and that often interferes with daily life and family. You hear “no” and “it can’t be done,” a lot.
“I have learned to take those times as challenges and opportunities as opposed to a reason to stop working,” he said in the video.
Through his first company, the Purdue Research Park startup, GH, LLC, Schleppenbach pioneered innovations in braille production and tactile graphics design and built GH into one of the largest producers of braille in the world. He developed new software tools to accurately translate STEM content into braille, improved the detail and durability of tactile graphics, and created e-readers to improve student access to textbooks. He helped found the Assistive Technology Industry Association and sat on numerous standards boards, actively promoting STEM education and career opportunities, and changing how publishers, schools, and government agencies across the US would provide better accommodations for the blind.
GH also provided services to government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. The company made thousands of vital government documents, standardized tests, textbooks, and curriculum materials available to blind individuals who would otherwise have received them too late or not at all.
After GH’s successful exit, Schleppenbach launched Tactile Engineering and Tactile Solutions in 2018 to pursue his long-held dream of making what would become the Cadence tablet. He passed that passion along to his partners, persevering through failed experiments, personal expense, and discouraging setbacks.
“Many times along the way, we were told “it’s not possible” to do what we were doing,” he said in his video. “Yet here we are today, standing in our factory producing this product that hopefully will change the world.”
Schleppenbach led his team through bootstrapped research and development, manufacturing, sales, and fundraising. He calculated tolerances and aided in every aspect of design, hand-assembled prototypes, programmed robots, handled talent and administrative tasks, and visited potential supporters, partners, investors, and customers.
Through those years, Schleppenbach continued his advocacy and volunteer work, helping blind students and residents with accessibility, school, work and transportation, and speaking at meetings and conferences to advocate for improved services for people with disabilities. He holds numerous patents for tactile graphics technology, going back to 1996 and including technologies Tactile Engineering is still working on.
Last year, he secured $2 million in capital launched a manufacturing facility in Lafayette, and began production and deployment of Cadence tablets to schools.
Today, blind students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired use Cadence tablet to plot temperature data in real time, view animated graphics of geology and physics content, and make tactile graphs. Because there’s more to life than school and work, they also play tactile video games like table tennis, mazes, and snake.
In the beginning, like Schleppenbach, much of the Tactile team were students and staff who worked from a closet-sized office with a dusty PC and a braille printer trying to help blind college students get the materials required to take calculus, chemistry, and other classes they needed for their future career plans.
“We talked about a day when better technology, a true tactile display screen, would change everything for blind people everywhere,” the team said in its nomination. “For over 20 years, Dave blazed a trail of innovations, market developments, alliance-building and steadfast determination that led us to where we are now. We’re here today because Dave kept the fire burning. In the 90s, we helped two blind students graduate college. Today, we’re set to help millions.”
See All Award Winners from the 2023 Mira Awards Gala.
TechPoint, the nonprofit, industry-led growth initiative for Indiana’s digital innovation economy, honored the state’s top successes and innovations during the 24th annual Mira Awards gala with presenting sponsors UKG, Salesforce and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.
A total of 18 award winners and honorees were chosen from the 141 outstanding people, companies and products that were selected as nominees for their achievements during the 2022 calendar year.
Fifty-two independent, volunteer judges spent more than 850 total hours evaluating applications, interviewing nominees, and selecting this year’s winners. Judges included an impressive roster of company founders, CEOs and presidents, CTOs, CIOs, engineers and other industry professionals.
TechPoint’s Mira Awards are named after the first of the brilliant variable stars to be discovered—the Mira Star. It is also the Latin root meaning “worthy of admiration, wonderful, marvelous.” The awards represent the best of tech in Indiana each year.