Navin Thadani won't ever forget the horrified looks on his engineers' faces.

It was 2016, and Thadani was a vice president of product development at Oracle. He and his team from Rovello, a recently acquired startup, had built a particularly neat piece of software--or so he thought. Someone from the tech giant's accessibility department said the new product was completely inaccessible for anyone with a vision disability. "Sure, no problem," Thadani replied, somewhat naively. "Forward me the requirements and I'll take a look at it."

The requirements, it turned out, presented a serious challenge, so Thadani called in his friend and co-worker Gal Moav, a senior director of product management. Then, they brought in the whole team, none of whom had ever written code to the stringent accessibility standards of a large corporation. "It's a very hard problem to solve," Thadani says. "Out of all the projects that we had to do around security, integration, and billing systems, accessibility was the one where I saw our engineers struggle the most."

Thadani and Moav spotted opportunity. In 2018, the pair left Oracle to create Palo Alto, California-based startup Evinced, which helps software engineers find and fix accessibility problems on their websites and apps--with checks built in throughout each phase of the coding process that can prevent problems before a product has been finalized. That last piece, Thadani says, helps sets Evinced apart from competitors.

The company's public launch, in February 2021, after 18 months partially in stealth mode, appears well timed. There's pressure on corporate America to promote inclusivity, just as websites and mobile apps continue to grow more complex, making accessibility compliance a taller task each day. And as the world transitioned to a more heavily online lifestyle in 2020, many of the 61 million Americans with disabilities found themselves left behind: Last year saw 3,550 lawsuits alleging digital violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a 23 percent increase over 2019, according to a study by digital accessibility company UsableNet.

Accessibility issues have even plagued the country's Covid-19 vaccine rollout, including 81 of the 94 vaccine websites belonging to all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to a recent Kaiser Health News investigation. The investigation noted that blind residents have reported being unable to register for a vaccine without help in at least seven states.

Eric Benhamou, founder and general partner at venture capital firm BGV, which co-led Evinced's $17 million Series A fundraise in February alongside Microsoft and Capital One, notes that the "digital accessibility services" industry is still fairly small. He estimates the industry's size at roughly $250 million--which, he says, will grow to several billion dollars within the next five years. With Capital One signed on as the startup's first big-name client, and other companies paying up to seven figures for its services, Evinced could help lead that growth--despite being one of the field's newest entrants.

"There's so much pent-up demand," Thadani says, adding that many of the country's largest corporations have already reached out to his firm. "Clearly, the market is looking for something."

A new technology

There's a big difference between what the human eye sees on a webpage and what a computer program can detect from that site's source code. When you see a dropdown menu on a travel booking site with a list of locations, you intuitively know that you're searching for your preferred destination. But if the dropdown menu's code isn't clearly labeled on the back end, a vision-impaired user using a screen reader might not even know the dropdown exists.

In this example, the code isn't technically broken--it's just mislabeled, which helps explain why most automatic compliance detection tools can pinpoint only 10 to 20 percent of issues, Thadani says. The remaining 80 to 90 percent get uncovered during manual testing, which consumes time and drains resources.

The obvious solution--making automatic testing more proficient--is easier said than done. For a year and a half, Moav's Israel-based research-and-development team worked to train Evinced's A.I. to "see" webpages as humans do, and cross-reference that information with a more traditional code analysis. "We're already seeing 20 times better detection rates," Thadani says. "And we're just getting started."

Challenges ahead

The company's youth could be a great asset--growing industries tend to get shaken up by founders with fresh perspectives--or its biggest weakness. There's plenty of reason for skepticism: Every venture capitalist aims for a sizable return, and accepting a Series A round before you've even had a full revenue-earning year shows lots of confidence without much of a track record to back it up.

Evinced's short-term goals are fairly standard: Grow the client list and scale steadily without falling into the growth-at-all-costs trap that consumes many venture-backed startups. Thanadi says he's focusing on large businesses as clients, because they feel more regulatory pressure around accessibility compliance--and have larger targets on their backs for potential lawsuits. He's hoping to roughly double his company's headcount to 30-plus by the end of 2021.

As the industry heats up, the specter of increased competition looms. Thadani says most of today's digital accessibility companies make most of their revenue from the slow and inefficient manual testing process. That's sure to change as other new industry entrants emerge, and those entrenched companies--with their bigger budgets--begin to fight back.

"I welcome that," says Ashmeet Sidana, an Evinced board member and founder of Engineering Capital, which invested $2.5 million for Evinced's pre-seed round in March 2019. "Because that'll be evidence that we've established a new category."