Bill Gates Ice Water Challenge Spurs IPO Talk From Tobii

The founder of a Swedish company that uses eye sensors to help people with disabilities is considering an initial public offering as the business world’s top names draw attention to Lou Gehrig’s disease through an Internet campaign.

Tobii Technology AB, which makes eye-motion tracking products, has hired bankers to explore financial alternatives that include an IPO, Chief Executive Officer Henrik Eskilsson said in an interview.

Tobii’s gear helps people who have lost the ability to move or speak following a stroke, or because they suffer from cerebral palsy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the 1920s New York Yankee’s slugger. ALS is the focus of a fundraising campaign supported by billionaire Bill Gates, as well as former New Orleans Saints star Steve Gleason, who uses Tobii’s technology. Both have doused themselves with ice water to fight the disease.

‘It’s a highly under-served and unpenetrated market even in advanced, western economies and societies,’’ Eskilsson, who co-founded Tobii in 2001, said at his Stockholm headquarters. The potential market in these regions is worth about $2 billion annually, while current industry sales are about $200 million for touch and eye-movement-based communication solutions, he said.

New Opportunities

Tobii, with about $100 million in annual sales, needs to expand market reach and drive awareness to bolster growth in its assistive technology while attracting developers to create new opportunities for its sensors, Eskilsson said. Tobii’s hardware, which includes a camera and infra-red light emitters, tracks eye movement, allowing users to control a computer, letting them use special software to move and speak.

In total, about 35 million people suffer from one affliction or another to the point where they need a device to aid communication. So far, about 300,000 have gotten the help they need, said Eskilsson.

Tobii bought part of Pittsburgh-based DynaVox Systems LLC in May for $18 million to also give it touch-based technology to help people who can move but struggle to talk. About 1,500 universities also use Tobii for research, while Microsoft Corp. and Unilever are among companies that use the hardware and software to study consumer behavior.

While its assistive technology and research units are expected to deliver stable annual sales growth of 10 percent to 20 percent, the company’s third division is newer and has enormous potential, Eskilsson said.

Hard-Core Gamers

Tobii recently teamed up with SteelSeries, a Danish maker of computer hardware, to create an eye-tracking training device that allows hard-core gamers to analyze their playing and eventually may control the game. There are about 50 million gaming enthusiasts in the world who spend about $1,000 each year on hardware, Eskilsson said.

Sweden’s Sixth AP Fund invested $15 million in August to help fund Tobii’s DynaVox acquisition, joining Amadeus Capital Partners, Intel Capital, Investor Growth Capital and Northzone Ventures as co-owners.

“This is going to be in every computer and tablet and every car,” Eskilsson said. “It’s so obvious that devices and applications benefit from understanding the user in such a profound way that eye-tracking enables.”

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