Seneit Debese from Greta & Starks on barrier-free cinema
In 2017, she won one of the popular Deep Tech Awards for her innovative contribution: making inclusion with smart technology not only affordable, but possible in the first place. Two years later, Seneit Debese, CEO and founder of Greta & Starks, is assessing the submissions for the Deep Tech Award 2019 as a jury member.
Seneit Debese is an entrepreneur with a vision. In 2012, she developed two apps for the hard of hearing and the visually impaired to make barrier-free cinema possible: Greta & Starks. Today this is a three-man-and-one-woman company on Prenzlauer Berg. Her customers now include distributors such as Universal and Disney.
Hello Ms. Debese, how exactly does Greta & Starks work, and what is its advantage compared with other approaches?
Our basic aim is to become the likeable, open iTunes for audio descriptions, special hard-of-hearing subtitles - HoH in short – as well as international, i.e. foreign-language subtitles. The apps make the desired barrier-free version accessible regardless of the film medium. This allows anyone to play the audio description or subtitle which they want wherever they need it. One of our users, for example, simply played subtitles via Starks on a flight to Miami. Our apps basically work like the music identification app Shazam, only offline. Our solution is software-based, it basically works worldwide and costs the cinema and film industry only about one per cent compared with hardware-based solutions. This innovation makes us the most successful company in this field. Our aim is to open up a market volume of 62 million euro in Europe.
As a small team, you don't have the resources to create your own audio descriptions and subtitles. You depend on cooperation. Which form does this cooperation take and what relevance does the topic of "barrier-free cinema" have?
Audio descriptions have been around for almost 40 years. Nevertheless, audio descriptions and subtitles have not been accessible, especially in cinemas. Man has been able to fly to the moon for almost 50 years, so it should also be possible to make audio descriptions and subtitles accessible simply, anywhere, nationwide and offline. That's why we developed Greta & Starks. Our applications are free of charge for users and cinemas. Our clients are the distributors. We form an alliance or a partner network with the cinemas, which also includes Austria and Switzerland, to communicate this offer for blind, deaf, visually and hearing impaired people, their families and friends nationwide and inexpensively in many different ways. Cinema-goers will certainly notice our logo, our trailer, a poster or something similar.
And how does Greta & Starks come across with the distributors?
The cooperation with the distributors, especially distributors like Universal, Piffl Medien, Concorde, Weltfilm, X-Verleih, Warner, Fox, StudioCanal, etc., works very well. Universal is the first distributor that has begun to make all its films, including international films, accessible with audio descriptions and subtitles using the possibility of making films accessible through our apps. This will allow blockbusters such as 50 Shades of Grey, Minions, Jason Bourne and many others to be accessible. While some distributors attach great importance to the topic and of course make an above-average commitment, there are also distributors, including Berlin distributors, and above all television stations that we want to win over and convince.
How many films do you already have in your database? Is the focus on a particular genre?
For the first time in the almost 100-year history of the cinema, over 140 films are currently accessible barrier-free via Greta & Starks. This autumn and winter there will be about 70 more films. Among other things, we are making more than 30 films accessible for the DOK Film Festival in Leipzig. Our aim is to make all films available in cinemas on DVD and VOD as well as on TV, making it easy to experience as wide a range of films as possible together. We are pleased to have been able to contribute to other initiatives such as the blog of a blind cinema enthusiast. In addition, we are in the process of introducing our goal of "Cinema for All" in other countries such as France, Poland, Israel and Brazil.
Berlin has a diverse and active creative and media scene. What role has this played in building your own network so far?
The first two years were an intensive build-up period which we mainly spent fighting for the establishment of our solutions and innovations. Now that we have almost finished developing our special headset for the projection of subtitles, for example in the cinema, we are looking forward to an intensive exchange. Among other things, thanks to the Media Residency Program we were able to present the Berlin start-up scene in New York for three months this summer. At the same time, this was a unique opportunity to present our apps in the USA and evaluate the market. It has been confirmed that there is also a great demand for this software-based solution - our Greta & Starks apps - in the USA. And so we have also come into even closer contact with the Berlin creative and media scene.
From the foundation of the company to the marketing of the app - how did you initially finance this? Did you also gain experience with Berlin funding programs?
I worked as a distributor before Greta & Starks, so we took our first steps using film promotion tools such as Medienboard. From the very beginning, we enjoyed a lot of support from Investitionsbank Berlin, from which we took advantage of various funding programs, from Berlin Partner and from Investitionsbank des Landes Brandenburg. We financed our Starks Glass headset for simple and wireless projection of subtitles with the Transfer BONUS and the Design Transfer Bonus. Last year we even won the 10,000 euro Creative Technology Award of the Berlin Senate Department for Economics, Technology and Research. So not only have we had good experiences with the Berlin funding programs; we also feel that we are in good hands all round and are happy about the diverse support we have received.
With the development of your headset you have also ventured into a hardware project – this certainly involves a lot of effort?
Yes! And above all: the financing is difficult. We are developing a low-cost, special headset for the projection of subtitles not only in the cinema, but also in the theatre or opera, in order to enable a comprehensive provision of subtitles for deaf and international viewers. The development has taken longer than necessary due to a lack of financing. We are all the happier that we ended up with Transfer BONUS and Design Transfer Bonus thanks to Berlin Partner and were also supported in acquiring the funding. However, it would help us even more as a small, ambitious company if, for example, 80 percent of the funding could be paid out immediately. This is usual and very helpful in the film funding sector, for example. The Transfer BONUS and Design Transfer Bonus teams are very competent, supportive, friendly and, last but not least, very patient.
Ms Debese, can you please end with the following sentence: Berlin is ...
... just the way I like it. Here everyone can live the whole range of his or her diversity in harmony.