Ask the average 18-year-old boy what his chief concerns are, and he’ll probably mention high school graduation, college applications, partying and girls. On the flip-side, inventing new technologies and kick-starting a multinational business is probably not on his priorities list.
That is, unless you ask Polish teenager Mateusz Mach, who, despite being only 18, has already designed groundbreaking software to help deaf people communicate and convinced seasoned professionals to invest in his project.
Mach developed Five App, which was initially a downloadable phone application that allowed users to send different hand signs to their friends instead of traditional texts. A hip hop enthusiast, Mach’s original purpose for Five App was to let people communicate in a fun way using symbols seen in the hip hop world, the idea being that only they and their friends would understand the messages.
Everything began to change when Mach recruited Blake Wind, an English tutor from the United States, to perfect the English in the app’s original version. Wind had considered the possibility of transforming the app into something more early on and connected Mach to Cindy Chen, an occupational therapist who is deaf in both ears, with a cochlear implant in her left ear.
“Blake explained to me that they wanted to build a platform that deaf people could use to communicate,” says Chen. “My unique experience of living as a hard of hearing individual who signs intermediate-level ASL and understands deaf culture allowed me to discover the purpose of Five App and its enormous potential. I contributed by providing feedback and sharing my ideas on how to bring this app to the next level.”
Mach was instantly sold on the idea. “Up to 80 percent of deaf people have problems with reading and writing even simple messages. Moreover, they don’t have a proper messenger to communicate in sign language,” explains Mach. He realized that, instead of merely allowing the sharing of hip hop signs, his app could be a sign language messenger.
Entering the Shark Tank
Having the idea was one thing. Diving into the figurative “shark tank” and convincing seasoned investors to support the venture was a completely different ball game. The cards were especially stacked against Mach, who, as a teenager, ran the risk of not be taken as seriously by the investors.
This teenager, though, was not to be underestimated. Another person in his shoes might have tried to act extra formal during investor meetings, wearing a shirt, tie, slacks and expensive watch. Not Mach, who showed up wearing a hoodie and baseball cap.
Why? For Mach, convincing investors comes down to trust and staying true to oneself. “The main problem linked with finding the venture capital for any project is to make investors trust you,” explains Mach. “During the meetings I wear my baseball cap and hoodie not only because they are comfortable, but also because I believe that I owe my point of view to the environment in which I grew up, and that is why I respect hip hop culture so much.” It’s a genuineness that the investors respected and, ultimately, led some of them to back Mach.
Currently, Mach’s goal is to perfect Five App using American Sign Language (ASL) before eventually rolling out a Polish Sign Language version. In fact, this month the team expects to release a totally redesigned version of the app. “The new app is a full fledged messenger with a base dictionary of 800 custom animated ASL signs, built to accommodate more,” says Blake Wind, who is now Chief Marketing Officer at Five App. “We’re working on a sign language messenger that will be as straightforward as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.”
For her part, Cindy Chen now works closely with Five App’s animation team, reviewing the 800 animated signs and submitting comments and videos of corrections before they are released on the app. “I ensure the signs are all correct before they go live,” explains Chen.
According to Mach, “We’re taking a global perspective moving forward because we believe the possibilities are limitless. We are also keeping our fingers crossed for the possibility of cooperating with the United Nations. We are proud of the fact that more and more deaf people and authorities have expressed interest in helping us build the product.”
Despite his international strategy, Mach is aware of the significance his invention has for Polish innovation. He explains his hope that once international investors notice Polish inventions like Five App, they will be more inclined to support other Polish ventures. “In order to attract foreign partners here, we have to first prove the ability of the Polish startup community to create valuable products. I hope that Five App is, and will continue to be, a shining example of this,” states Mach.
To download Five App, visit http://fiveapp.mobi/