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The Benetech Story

It was at Caltech during the 1970s when the idea hit like lightning. An engineering student named Jim Fruchterman had just learned, in a modern optics class, about how pattern recognition technology could guide a missile to its target.

“If you could use this technology to recognize tanks or bridges,” Jim thought, “perhaps you could also recognize letters and words. Then we could use software to read those words aloud to people who are blind.”

A still shot from the video of Benetech's CEO, Jim Fruchterman, giving his Ted x SanJose talk.

Benetech’s founder and CEO, Jim Fruchterman, sharing our story. Click the image (courtesy of TEDxSanJose) to access the video.

It was years later, after a stint as a rocket engineer, that Jim cofounded a venture capital–backed tech company called Calera Recognition Systems. There he helped invent the first successful machine that could read just about any printed font without requiring human training. The products based on that technology had many commercial applications, but Jim hadn’t let go of his earlier idea. Soon he and the Calera team began prototyping a reading machine for the blind.

When the machine was presented to Calera’s investors, they were impressed that it worked. However, they didn’t want Calera to pursue it. They had significant capital in the company, and not only was the machine projected to generate negligible profits, it would also take the focus away from developing more profitable products. It was then that Jim realized his dream didn’t fit in with the model of a for-profit tech company. So he decided to start a nonprofit.

In 1989, Benetech was born with a business model intended to keep costs low for users, and the organization quickly became the largest maker of affordable reading systems for the blind. However, very little funds were being generated to invest in new ideas. It was in 2000 that Jim decided to sell the reading machine product line to a for-profit company and reinvest the money from the sale—$5 million—to expand Benetech to new frontiers of social good.

Today, Benetech continues to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit—with a pure focus on developing technology for social good. More than two decades after our founding, we’ve grown to include multiple program areas and initiatives that provide technology to improve—even transform—the lives of people all across the world. You can read more about our work through our four main program areas: Human Rights, Global Literacy, Environment and Benetech Labs.

Because we’re a nonprofit tackling tough social issues, the funds to develop these new solutions come from individuals, foundations, corporations, partner organizations and agencies. Please consider supporting our work or partnering with us. Together, we can ensure that those who would benefit most from technology have access to it.