Visionary Inventor
A pioneer's new products help readers who are blind or dyslexic.Ray Kurzweil/Kurzweil Educational Systems, Bedford, Mass.
By Wilfried Eckl-Dorna

(FORTUNE Small Business) – He revolutionized the way that many blind people read when he invented a machine that scanned printed material and read it aloud, and when Ray Kurzweil sold the device to Xerox for $6 million, he could have retired and lived comfortably off the proceeds. Instead, the restless, ebullient MIT-trained engineer and entrepreneur continues to create new products, through a venture that projects $15 million in sales for 2005.

After selling his Reading Machine to Xerox in 1980, Kurzweil grew frustrated by what he saw as the company's increasing emphasis on using the scanning and character-recognition technologies he had developed for purposes that had little to do with the blind. So he founded Kurzweil Educational Systems in Bedford, Mass., in 1996. It quickly developed a new software-based, print-to-speech technology for a new reader for the blind. The Kurzweil 1000 program, which runs on any computer equipped with a scanner, is a more advanced and significantly smaller version of the original reader, which was the size of a washing machine. The new program also lets users access web repositories and convert texts into mp3 audio files. The product sold so well that Kurzweil's company turned a profit its first year. "This application of artificial intelligence really excites me," says Kurzweil, now 57. With only one rival (Freedom Scientific, based in St. Petersburg) offering a similar product and only two firms offering add-on programs for Windows, Kurzweil Educational Systems claims to control 50% of the market.

Kurzweil has developed a spinoff product, the Kurzweil 3000, to help those with dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder read and study independently. It translates text into spoken words while simultaneously highlighting on a computer screen the sentences that are being read. With the federal No Child Left Behind Act requiring schools to better educate the rising number of students diagnosed with learning disabilities, some 20,000 schools have purchased a Kurzweil 3000. It costs from $1,500 to $2,700, depending on the number of users and the scanning capabilities.

To help students studying English as a second language, Kurzweil's firm has adapted his software to read languages including French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Ultimately he plans to create customized programs for each language, to target the nearly four million school-age ESL students in the U.S.

Within a few years, Kurzweil also expects to start introducing portable devices for disabled customers. By 2010 he envisions pocket-sized reading machines as well as tiny gadgets that will translate spoken words to text for the hearing impaired--essentially providing subtitles for the world. "Technology," he says, "can prevent a disability from causing an actual handicap." --WILFRIED ECKL-DORNA