"Do you hear me at the back?... Yeah, alright, okay." Everyone knows this annoying phrase interrupting almost any meaningful event. And if you have ever been speaking at any of those events, you also know how awkward it feels when you are not even sure if the audience can hear you.
Most of us got used to live with this, while some went out looking for solutions. About a year ago three ambitious Latvians - Lauris, Agnis and Martins decided that there must be a better way. Having supplied schools with audiovisual equipment for about 4 years, they found an inherent problem at the very core of their business. Theoretically, the industry was considered to provide audio-visual solutions, while practically almost all focus was on visuals, with almost no products developed for audio.
"It is a striking paradox," explains PentaClass founder Lauris, "If a teacher does not have a board, he can still go to school and teach. If a teacher does not have a computer, he can still go to school and teach. But if a teacher does not have voice, he must stay at home.Yet it is astounding how little attention has been devoted to audio solutions for classrooms so far."
Research has shown that 65% of teachers in Latvia have problems with vocal cords and the rest have an 8 times higher likelihood of experiencing such problems compared to other people. Also, it shows that an astonishing amount of children have hearing problems, yet traditional medical checks at schools are primarily focused on vision.
"Globally, it starts to change now," Lauris admits. ‘UK devotes vast attention to enhancing audio in classrooms, Scandinavian institutions are conducting more and more research and devoting more and more attention to hearing problems. We have been to Bett Show 2014 exhibition in London, Integrated Systems Europe 2014 in Amsterdam and are going to the US soon. The exhibitions allowed us to gather valuable feedback and realize the potential of our product.’’
PentaClass is a simple wireless audio system that ensures even distribution of audio throughout the classroom. The product is made of plywood, aluminium and plastic. It can be installed in any room up to 120m2 and ensure high quality learning process. All components are quality-checked and proudly made in Latvia.
"The key challenge was engineering," Lauris remembers. "As each classroom is different, it took our engineers a lot of effort to ensure that PentaClass can work equally well in different premises. Another key priority was simplicity of use and installation."
The final PentaClass prototype was built with help of Cesis business incubator, Ventspils High Technology Park, personal networks and experienced engineers. Latvian Investment and Development Agency helped the company to attend international exhibitions. Now the team has ordered all components and is ready to supply their first production parties to their distributors in May.
"99% of our focus is on export markets," Lauris admits. "Customer education can potentially pose a challenge for our distributors. However, teachers who saw our product are amazed by the simple and elegant solution. So far we have 98 potential distributors for our product worldwide and continue to receive more calls. Our suggested strategy is to pitch the value to teachers and encourage them to explain it to educational institutions."
The moto of PentaClass is ‘Harmony between people and technology’. Lauris claims that engineers used pentagon design for practical reasons. However, it also has a beautiful spiritual, sensual meaning. ‘Pentagon represents harmony. And our product is harmony between teachers, students, knowledge and technology. It is a simple, yet practical solution.’
Certes Industry, which is behind PentaClass, is a privately owned company currently consisting of 10 people - two business co-founders, one technological co-founder and 7 engineers. Firm’s primary market is schools but PentaClass can be used for any purpose related to playing audio content in a room.
Marija Odineca is passionate about Baltic startup scene, visiting interesting Baltic startups and gathering their stories. She also coordinates the Entrepreneurship Support Centre at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and Global Entrepreneurship Week in Latvia.