Fable of Toronto raises $10.5 million to make online access a reality for users with disabilities

Alwar Pillay, CEO and co-founder of Fable, an access platform, says the Toronto startup is “focused on companies with big digital teams and billions of users.”Fred Lom/The Globe and Mail

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

Funding was led by Kansas City-based Five Elms Capital and Supported by Difference Partners and former investor Disrupt Ventures So is Toronto financier John Ruffolo, who uses a wheelchair after a near-fatal traffic accident in 2020.

Fable has quickly established itself as a startup company for big clients including Microsoft Corp. MSFT-Q, Facebook’s parent company Meta Platform Inc, FB-Q, Shopify Inc. SHOP-T, Slack Technologies LLC, Walmart Inc. WMT-N and Telus Corp. TT to ensure that its digital offerings do not neglect visually impaired users or those with mobility issues.

“We focus on companies with large digital teams and billions of users,” said CEO Alwar Pillay. “We believe that with their help, we are opening up access to many more users on the network.”

Ms. Pillay and COO Abid Virani co-founded Fable in 2018, a year after graduating with a master’s degree in inclusive design from the Ontario College of Art and Design. Ms. Pillay said she has written her master’s thesis on how technology is designed for older people and how digital tools can play a role in ensuring they do not feel socially isolated.

Her early work experience, including assignments as an access expert for the Ontario Department of Education and as a user experience designer for Rogers Communications Inc. Companies that realize they rarely implement the “perfect experience” are left for customers with access challenges. I learned about it at school.

“I just saw a deficit in how products are built,” she said.

“What I noticed is that everyone was talking about accessibility and trying to make the products accessible, but there was no one with disabilities in the room presenting their point of view. … For me, it was key to making sure that we bring diverse perspectives into the product. And that work is in progress so that people are more aware and can make informed decisions. Ultimately, if you have a more comprehensive process, you will have an accessible product.”

Fable offers a subscription service, in which it contracts with hundreds of people with disabilities to research and test products as they are developed by their customers. Users share their feedback via Fable’s Engage platform, which the startup’s customers then review to determine how to improve the accessibility features of their products. Fable typically charges customers tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Mr. Ruffolo said that when he looked into the space, he realized that the market for products and services to help users with accessibility challenges was “bigger than I thought,” covering not only hearing and visually impaired but also stroke survivors, people with Parkinson’s disease and aging users. He invested personally. “It’s a huge market and it’s going to be even bigger because of the aging population.”

Microsoft started working with Fable last year. “The partnership began with Fable who works with us to conduct user accessibility research for Microsoft sites and services, and has grown to include educational modules on how developers with disabilities use Microsoft products to do their best work” in Microsoft Accessibility.

“Working with an organization that shares the same passion for developer access, which is what Microsoft does, has been active, which is why we’re so excited about the latest Fable fundraising news,” she added.

Microsoft is one of the few tech giants including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. that have added accessibility features to their products. For example, they have introduced automatic feedback and audio screen readers for describing images in videos and photos. Microsoft also offered eye-controlled tablet software as well as hardware alternatives for a keyboard, mouse, and game console to help people with mobility challenges and those with standard navigation tools.

However, electronic technology magazine Engadget said last December in its annual industry accessibility report, that “large organizations have continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities.”

Austin Gideon, partner of Five Elms, said in an interview that accessibility considerations in technology development “might exist [data protection] And privacy was a decade ago before the European Mandate changed the whole landscape. I think, historically, accessibility might have been seen as a backlash, with companies only reacting to lawsuits or complaints.

But given that an estimated 15 percent of users need some kind of help with technology, companies “really see that [engaging Fable] As a profit opportunity” to grow their potential market, Mr. Gideon added.

He predicted that Fable, which has also started offering video courses for companies to design accessible products, could rapidly increase its revenue. It is currently running on low to mid single digit million dollars annually, to between $50 million and $100 million in the next five years.

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

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