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Seneit Debese: “Inclusion can also mean innovation”

Seneit Debese: “Inclusion can also mean innovation”
Photo: © Philip Nürnberger

Seneit Debese is an entrepreneur with a vision. In 2012 she developed two apps, Greta & Starks, for the hearing- and visually-impaired to make barrier-free cinema possible.. Today she is part of a 3-man-and-a-woman company in Prenzlauer Berg that is supported by numerous programs and initiatives. Her clients now include rental companies such as Universal and Disney. We are awarding you the Berlin’s Best seal for these efforts and would love to know just do someone starts a company like Greta & Starks. We paid a visit to Silicon Allee in Prenzlauer Berg. 



CCB Magazin: Hello Seneit, you developed Greta & Starks in 2012, two important apps that enable the hearing-impaired (Greta) and visually impaired (Starks) to go to the cinema. Have you tried the apps in the cinema yourself?

Seneit Debese: Yes, of course! Naturally, I also go to the films that are provided by us. I absolutely love cinema. At that time I was surprised to learn that it’s possible send a rocket to the moon, but that visually impaired or hearing impaired people have almost no opportunities to experience cinematic worlds in person.

At that time I was surprised to learn that it’s possible send a rocket to the moon, but that visually impaired or hearing impaired people have almost no opportunities to experience cinematic worlds in person.

CCB Magazin: Can you explain how exactly the two apps Greta & Starks work?

Seneit Debese: It’s quite simple: The blind user uses Voice Over to operate his smartphone. It’s a technology that Apple introduced in 2009 that enables us today to develop our Greta & Starks apps. Users can download the apps free of charge from the App Store or Google Play. Then they select a film of their choice and off they go. Greta “whispers audio description”, Starks “plays subtitles”. The apps thus make it possible for everyone to experience cinema, every man and every woman, in every cinema, in every movie theatre, at every desired performance - simply from your own smartphone! 

The Greta & Starks team. Photo: © Jens Thomas

CCB Magazin: You had the idea for Greta & Starks 2012 after shooting a report about the blind runner Kidisti Weldemichael in 2011. What happened then? 

Seneit Debese: The report on Kidisti Weldemichael was a bit of a seminal experience for me. It was my first encounter with a blind person. It made me realise how difficult it was not to be able to participate in what everyone is participating in. Kidisti Weldemichael was 19 years old at the time. Like her friends, she wanted to go to the movies. And as a cinema enthusiast, I thought then, and still think today, that everyone should be able to do just that. When you go to a movie, you are transported to distant and brand new worlds. Cinema has something magical about it. 

CCB Magazin: What background do you have yourself? How did end up doing what you are doing today?

Seneit Debese: I come from Eritrea and grew up in Mannheim. I came to Berlin in 1999. Actually, I studied business administration. But during my studies I felt really down; just earning money wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to solve problems in an entrepreneurial way. I wanted to get involved. At that time, I would never have believed that I would be working with developing apps, especially since they didn’t even exist then. 

Just earning money wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to solve social problems in an entrepreneurial way. 

CCB Magazin: Who actually develops the apps? Who is involved in the Greta & Starks project and what is your role in the company?

Seneit Debese: I’m the Managing Director, and we develop the apps as a team. In total we are 3.5 people, which is actually four. In addition, of course, we have a large staff of freelancers who are involved in the project and who support us. Developers and designers, for example. We want to grow further in the future. Above all, we need more developers and people from the sales sector. 

At the Greta & Starks office. Photo: © Jens Thomas

CCB Magazin: Your solution is software-based, it works worldwide and costs the cinema and film industry only about one percent compared to hardware-based solutions. The applications are free of charge for users and cinemas. Who are your clients and how is Greta & Starks financed?

Seneit Debese: We are commissioned and paid by the distributors. So far there is no comparable software solution; that’s our market advantage. And we’re delighted that we now have such significant distributors as Universal or Disney on board as partners, who make all films accessible via our apps, even the international ones. So far, a directive has stipulated that “only” all German feature films must be made accessible, not the international ones. Today, however, films such as Fifty Shades of Grey or Rogue One - A Star Wars Story are also made available to blind and deaf film fans via Universal or Disney. This is a great achievement for us as a company, for our target group, for the entire cinema industry. 

CCB Magazin: Does that mean that your idea, which is a social one, is mainly supported by larger distributors? What about the smaller, independent distributors who can afford it less? Do they also support you?

Seneit Debese: Yes, also many independent lenders use our solution today and commission us. These include distributors like Piffl, Neue Visionen or X-Verleih, who make every German film they release available to deaf and blind people. But the big ones make all the films available to us. For us, this is a real competitive advantage over comparable providers abroad. Because no one has as many films as we do so far: Our offer ranges from animation and blockbusters to art-house pearls.

Directly on Prenzlauer Berg: Seneit Debese, Managing Director of Greta & Starks, in front of her office in Schönhauser Allee. Photo: © Jens Thomas 

CCB Magazin: In a way, you’re something of a good-will company. Several studies have demonstrated that companies with a social claim often have limited growth. Were you aware of this from the start and did you take it into account? Or is that perhaps not the case at all in your field, technology?

Seneit Debese: I admit, I had the users in mind from the beginning. I said to myself back then: I’ll do it now. And if someday someone comes to me and says, “It’s just awesome that these apps exist!”, that makes me happy. Then I’m happy, then that’s what I want. But I now also think that good ideas can be monetised: Last year, for example, the Dok Leipzig film festival used our apps, even for deaf viewers, but above all for German-speaking Leipzig audiences, who were able to view German subtitles in this way. That’s what we want! We want to reach as many people as possible. This is the only way to be financially successful. Inclusion can also mean innovation and unleash an economic force from which many profit.

We want to reach as many people as possible. This is the only way to be financially successful. Inclusion can then also mean innovation and unleash an economic power from which many profit.

CCB Magazin: You have been supported with Greta & Starks through numerous programmes. Was that a kind of start-up financing in the beginning or is it also a way to scale a company like yours?

Seneit Debese: We started small, of course. But we had a vision. Nevertheless, we had to validate our product and our business model. That’s why we initially applied for small amounts, for example from the BKM, Medienbord or the FFA - and received them. In Berlin, we received 15,000 euros each for the Transfer Bonus and the Design Transfer Bonus for our headset for the projection of subtitles. In addition, smaller amounts were collected from film promotion institutions in Switzerland and Austria. In addition, we received 100,000 euros through the EU Media project. In total, however, these were rather small amounts in order to be able to take the most important first steps.

CCB Magazin: If you would give others a tip: How do you start and scale a project like Greta & Starks?

Seneit Debese: I would say: Just do it!  You always make mistakes. You learn from it. Today, for example, we work in an area that didn’t exist back then. There is no predetermined path for that either, which could have been followed without any problems. Basically this is always trial and error. That is also the beauty of it: reasoning is like a voyage of discovery.

My advice is truly: Just do it!  Reasoning is like a voyage of discovery

CCB Magazin: Seneit, what does the future hold? Where do you want to go personally and also with Greta & Starks?

Seneit Debese: Our goal is that in five years we will supply all European countries with our apps. That’s the least we want to achieve. Then we are already working on a product expansion that looks like we also want to market audio films in the near future. That wouldn’t be a free offer, but it would still be a very attractive - big cinema, simply to go. This type of audio film is comparable to an audio book. And we are currently developing a headset that can be compared to Google glasses, but works much better: The headset can be used to project subtitles into the room. This headset is also linked to our Starks app, which can already play subtitles. And we want to offer international subtitles in the future. This means that you can select your language for each film at any location. This offer would also be subject to a charge. As you can see, we still have a lot to do!

CCB Magazin: I wish you all the success in the world. And thank you for the nice conversation and the fine coffee in your office!

Berlin's Best Award

All about Greta & Starks

Category: Innovation & Vision


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