Pioneering Software for Social Good
Jim Fruchterman, Benetech’s founder and CEO, was an engineering student at Caltech when he learned 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.”
Years later, after a stint as a rocket engineer, Jim cofounded a VC-backed tech company called Calera Recognition Systems. Calera invented the first successful machine that could read almost 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.
Calera’s investors were impressed that the reading machine worked; however, they didn’t want to pursue Jim’s vision as it would generate negligible profits and take the focus away from developing more profitable products. Jim realized his dream didn’t fit in with the for-profit model.
In 1989, Benetech was born with a business model intended to keep costs low for users. The organization quickly became the largest maker of affordable reading systems for the blind. Due to limited revenue to invest in new ideas, 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 software for social good. More than two decades after our founding, we’ve grown to include multiple program areas and initiatives that provide software to improve—even transform—the lives of people all across the world. You can read more about our work through our four main work areas: Education, Human Rights, Environment and Poverty.
As a nonprofit tackling tough social issues, the funds to identify and develop new software solutions come from individuals, foundations, corporations, partner organizations, and agencies. Please consider supporting our work or partnering with us. Together, we can ensure that all of humanity benefits from technology.