Mateo Salvatto: the 19-year-old Argentine entrepreneur who developed the Háblalo app for people with disabilities

Mateo Salvatto: the 19-year-old Argentine entrepreneur who developed the Háblalo app for people with disabilities

He will turn 20 on January 10. He still has the face of a child, but he speaks like an adult. Argentine Mateo Salvatto developed Háblalo, an app that works as a real-time translator for people with disabilities.

Two weeks ago, he represented Argentina in China, where he presented his development, which has a Chinese version. He works for the government of the province of Buenos Aires, in the Ministry of Technology and Innovation, spreading robotics in 135 municipalities.

He is an ambassador for the Campus Party 2018 meeting and dreams of growing educational robotics. In an interview with InfobaeSalvatto talks about his passions, the beginnings of his project, robotics as a sport and the future of Asteroid Technologies, the company he founded to develop inclusive technologies.

– ?When did your passion for robotics and programming begin?

-My interest in technology comes from when I was little, all my life. I studied at the ORT school in Almagro, a technical school, I am an electronics technician, and when I entered that orientation, I saw that there was a robotics club. I didn’t really understand what it was, but I loved the idea. They are fighting robots, the kids make sumo fighting robots, they have to find each other and push each other up a platform.I said, “I don’t know what this is, but I definitely want it.” And I got into it, and I started competing, and I started winning awards, and I realized that this was my thing.

-TO At what age did you make your first developments?

– I started in robotics in 2014, so I was 15 years old, and I started making a couple of robots that were very good. And then I started making one that was in a very particular category called mini-sumo, or 10 x 10 robots that were quite fast, called Yoda. We did it with a friend and then we added a couple more friends to the group. And then we started competing, and we won the national championship with that robot. That’s when a whole series of things related to robotics began.

-And then came the Háblalo app. Do you remember the day you decided to develop it?

-Yes, I remember. I finished high school in 2016, and summer was coming up and I said: “I want to do a project to entertain myself, something that has technology but to help people.” I was convinced that I wanted to do something to help people and I didn’t know what. My mother is a teacher for the deaf, so I grew up with people with this disability, and it bothered me that there was no technology for the deaf, very little. I told myself that I was going to do something myself, to see what came out, and I started thinking, and I realized that an app was a very good option. And the idea was to call it Háblalo, I put it in neutral because I wanted it to be a development for all of America, and well, it grew a little more than all of America, but I never expected it to be what it is today. I started it at home as a project to help my acquaintances, and suddenly it was all over the world.

-?How does Speak It work?

-It is a real-time translator that does not need an internet connection. In other words, what it does is give a voice to all the people who do not have one, who cannot communicate verbally, and on the other hand, subtitle the world for people who cannot hear. So, for example, a deaf person gets into a taxi and wants to go home, they can use Háblalo, write the address of the house, and the phone will say it out loud. The driver will listen to them, and when they respond at the end of the trip “It’s 150 pesos,” the phone will write that phrase so they can read it. And so it can work on a plane, in a doctor’s office, in a pharmacy, in any place where a person with a disability may need to communicate. It also includes other tools, such as pictograms, for people who are not literate, and other things that we are working on, but in essence it is that.

-What?What updates does the third version of the app you are launching have?

– Well, apart from a lot of new features that we want to work on (such as allowing deaf people to communicate with emergency services), we have a very wide range of users. The app is for deaf people, but today it has been expanded. Suddenly, videos started arriving from people with cerebral palsy, aphasia, apraxia, a whole bunch of different difficulties, who were using the app. We have to adapt. One of the things about the new version is that we have to adapt the graphical interface depending on the person’s disability: the needs of a person with paralysis, at a graphic level, are not the same as those of a deaf person, in terms of fine motor skills and so on. So the idea is that the application is a multi-tool with a lot of other tools.

Mateo Salvatto presenting his app Háblalo, in China

-You were in China representing Argentina and showing Háblalo, how did they receive you?

-The truth is that it is an application that has expanded a lot: there are 40,000 users in 40 countries, on 5 continents, but it is not available in China due to application restrictions. It’s not easy to take an app there, but we went representing the province of Buenos Aires, and Argentina in general, and I was able to show what Háblalo is like, and a lot of people passed by the stand. People loved it. Before traveling, I thought that the Chinese already had something similar, but apparently not, because everyone who saw it loved it. A person told me that he had a disabled relative and he didn’t know how to help him get by on his own in everyday life, and this was a good idea. I made a small version of the app in Chinese, it wasn’t in that language yet, for this reason I was telling you, and I programmed it with the team to show what it was like. And people were fascinated, it was a really good experience.

Salvatto at Robotraffic, in Israel

-?What is your opinion regarding the transmission of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) skills in school?

– I believe that on a global level, not just in Argentina, it is priority number one. There is no way around it, in public or private schools, they have to start teaching at least programming and robotics. Why robotics, in particular? The discussion is already underway that the jobs of the future are coming, that they are going to take jobs away from us, and everything is going to change, which may happen. We have to be prepared, training the kids, who are the future, who are going to create the jobs that do not yet exist. So, for me, it is a total priority. Robotics, like a sport, is a recreational activity. It is learning programming, it is learning mathematics, physics, electronics, by playing. Nobody forces you to learn, nobody sits you down and looks at a whiteboard and writes things down, instead you say, “Oh, I need this physics formula so I can balance my robot properly, so it doesn’t fall over when it hits the other one.” And you look up the physics formula on Google and you learn it.

Salvatto in the robot fighting championships

-?How did you become the international robotics champion in 2016?

-That was a huge dream for me. When I fell in love with robotics in 2014, the teachers, probably as an incentive, told me that there is a competition that ORT represents Argentina in every year there, called Robotraffic, organized by Technion, a university in northern Israel. You have to make autonomous cars and take them to competitions, for me it was crazy. I said to myself “I want that, I’m sure I want it.” And I started trying to be the best competitor possible, with that goal in mind, to try to eventually get to Israel. At the end of 2015, when I became national champion, I received the message I had been waiting for so long, from one of the teachers who accompanied us, along with Matías, who was also a national champion in mini-sumo on one occasion, a great champion of the League.

– What did they have to do?

– They put us both together and said, “Well, you’re going to build a self-driving car to represent Argentina in the competition.” For me, it was totally crazy. We had to build a self-driving car that could drive itself on the street, and we competed against Russia, Mexico, the United States, Israel, Ukraine...And the truth is that, obviously, we were really looking forward to winning, but to be honest, we didn’t have all the faith we had, but the truth is that when they stood on stage and said that the winning team was Argentina, it was definitely one of the best feelings of my life.

-What projects do you have with your company? Asteroid Technologies?

-The company is doing very well. It had always been a dream of mine to have a technology startup and also to change the technology company a bit, turning it more towards the social aspect. There is definitely a bit of everything. The priority is Háblalo. I want the app to be the best possible product for as many people with disabilities on the planet as possible. With these ideals, the project is to work with educational robotics, making it accessible and affordable in Argentina.

-In the short term, do you think you will continue living in Argentina?

-Yes, yes. I am many things, among them, I would define myself as a bit of a patriot, I like Argentina a lot. In fact, the idea that Asteroid is here, that Hábalo is from here, and that it doesn’t go anywhere, reflects that part of me. I bet on Argentina, because I think that Argentines have enormous potential and enormous intelligence to take this type of projects abroad, and we are a bit used to talking about technology from abroad.

-?Which tech entrepreneurs do you admire??

-For me, the biggest one is Elon Musk, but I would also like to mention Emiliano Kargieman, the director of Satellogic, an Argentine satellite company that is here and in other countries, a total genius.

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