A Publication of WTVP

Innovation of the Year

Placing accessibility, diversity and inclusion at the heart of innovation

by Jonathan Wright |
We Hear You

A new venture from a 2019 Bradley University graduate intends to make Peoria the most accessible city in Illinois. Founded by Pierre Paul less than two years ago, We Hear You® (W.H.Y.) has built an app that translates American Sign Language (ASL) into audible text—and text back into ASL—using recently developed gesture recognition technology. The groundbreaking tool promises to improve quality of life for the deaf and hard of hearing population and normalize the use of ASL in common everyday situations.

The idea came to Paul late one night when he couldn’t sleep. After a dream about a sign language translator proved “too vivid to ignore,” he contacted his best friend (and now company COO), and the two got to work. Tapping members of Bradley’s Data Science Club for software development, the team took first prize in the 2019 Social Impact Challenge, sponsored by the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and went on to win its 2020 Big Idea Competition, using the $8,000 cash prize to conduct product testing and gain provisional patents on the code.We Hear You

As they refined their technologies, Sara Skolaski of The Spot Coffee made her shop available to test the interface in a real-life scenario, offering deaf and hard of hearing customers the option to place orders through ASL. Meanwhile, the W.H.Y. team’s innovative problem solving has already achieved recognition beyond Peoria. Not only did NPR select Paul as one of 10 Fellows for its 2021 “How I Built This” Summit, the young CEO has already begun to forge ties with a Fortune 50 company: the Minneapolis-based Target Corporation. “Acceptance and inclusion of underserved constituencies in the economy,” Paul notes, “is a growing objective of more and more large companies.”

A follow-up invention—the Hands Free Door Opener, which can open doors from a distance with the push of a button—builds on the company’s passion to make the world more accessible. “We believe that diversity and inclusion should never be the afterthought of innovation—it should be the foundation,” Paul declares. “Doing the right thing does not need a justification; it just needs kind and open-minded individuals who are willing to learn and are capable of adapting to change.” PM