Every day, across remote, poverty-stricken villages in India, sole wage-earners for their families go to work. They make barely enough money to buy the most basic essentials. And, if that weren’t enough hardship, every day, some of these workers wake up unable to see.

The cause of this sudden blindness is diabetic retinopathy. Often the disease has no symptoms until the damage to the eyes is severe. The longer the disease goes undiagnosed the more likely complications can occur. An estimated 50 million people in India have diabetes, and 10 million of these may have retinopathy. Everyone must be screened to find those who need treatment to prevent needless blindness.

There is a solution to the problem—mobile eye-scanning units that can detect retinopathy early enough to prevent blindness through medical treatment. But the units too often don’t work because the satellites they use to send data to hospitals are unreliable, much like a cell phone that loses service.

Standing in Madurai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Aron Hall and his family are observing one unit that stands out. It doesn’t lose service. The Aravind Eye Hospital’s mobile eye-scanning unit relies on a wireless network service called NetAmp, which is constantly “on,” no matter where in rural India the mobile unit team travels. It’s simple to set up, requiring just a few USB cards, and service is never lost. Every day, by sending scans to hospitals, the unit helps to prevent the onslaught of blindness for many in this remote Indian village.

What Hall sees in Tamil Nadu is his brainchild at work: NetAmp, which combines multiple carriers into one “amplified” carrier. It’s essentially having Verizon, AT&T, and other carriers working as one all-encompassing, unified carrier that provides uninterrupted service.

The roots of Hall’s company, Hobnob, can be traced back to his father. Dennis Hall was a computer programmer in the ’60s and ’70s, before that job description even existed. He helped popularize the UNIX operating system and created new ways to harness and use the technology of the Internet in its very first days. The elder Hall, in an almost prescient way, believed that telecommuting and other methods of interfacing with computers from remote locations would define the future of “work.”

Using his father as inspiration, Aron Hall took his idea to Carnegie Mellon 20 years later, knowing that a plan like his would require the kind of business acumen he would receive at the Tepper School of Business, as well as a computer science “superstar” whom he would “surely meet” at CMU. Sure enough, Jared Go (CS’04) would become his chief technology officer. Several other alumni would become part of the Hobnob team, too.

Like many startups, success wasn’t overnight. Back in 2003, nobody seemed to grasp the need for “amplified” wireless networking, recalls Hall (TPR’03). Today, they do. Hobnob, which works on almost anything—laptops, netbooks, tablets, heavy duty mobile locations, you name it—now has more than 50,000 users, everyone from commuters on railways to rock stars on tour buses to mobile eye clinic staffers in rural India.
—Michele Bova (DC’07)

The goal of Carnegie Mellon University’s Greenlighting Startups initiative is to increase the university’s visibility and leadership in spurring economic growth and job creation, and to further establish CMU as the destination for entrepreneurs. Since 2004 CMU has doubled the number of startup companies created by its award winning faculty and students from across the university, and is now one of the fastest growing entrepreneurial institutions in the United States.

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