Meet the twins developing an indoor navigation app for the visually impaired — all while navigating a new life in NYC

From left, Alp and Mert Kanıbir, 17-year-old twins and high school seniors who are working on an indoor navigation system, photographed outside of their high school, the Collegiate Institute for Math & Science, on Dec. 5, 2023.
Photo Erin Edwards

Despite having trekked all the way from the Bronx down to Morningside Heights — and enduring train transfers and delays in the process — 17-year-old twins, entrepreneurs and full-time high school students Alp and Mert Kanıbir seemed to have retained every ounce of their energy throughout their over-an-hour-long journey. 

As soon as they sat down, they started gabbing away in Turkish with me, talking about their train ride down, asking about how the interview would go, and explaining how they’d applied to colleges earlier that week. They were animated conversationalists, having much to say and to inquire about.

To the classic tell-me-about-yourselves question, they had a 25-minute long response — and even that extent of an answer does not do them justice. They told their story linearly, leading with their upbringing in Turkey, explaining the accident that led Alp to lose his eyesight, their subsequent move to New York until they eventually arrived at their project which was at the center of our conversation.

For more than a year now, the Kanıbirs have been working on an indoor navigation system called NAVINDOOR.

“Our business idea was to make visually impaired people independent in indoor spaces,” Alp Kanıbir said. 

For the twins, NAVINDOOR was more than an idea — it was a necessity. In March 2022, back in Turkey, Alp Kanıbir encountered a freak accident involving a friend playing with a gun. The gun went off on Alp, which resulted in the permanent loss of his vision, and temporary loss of his autonomy.

Although born in Houston, Texas, Alp and Mert Kanıbir were raised in Erdek, a seaside town in the Turkish city of Balıkesir. “A beautiful town,” Alp Kanıbir said, but there were not enough resources there to support the blind in becoming independent.

From left, Mert Kanıbir and Alp Kanıbir as children, grinning as they embrace each other. Photo courtesy Mert Kanıbir

So the Kanıbirs uprooted themselves in June 2022 and moved to the Williamsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx in pursuit of an education that would be more accommodating toward the visually impaired.

Initially, Alp Kanıbir was looking to enroll in a school for the blind, but later decided against it.

“He wanted to challenge himself by coming to my school … to excel in a normal school with this academic rigor that he had,” Mert Kanıbir said. The twins currently attend the Collegiate Institute for Math & Science on Astor Avenue.

The summer the twins arrived in the U.S., they joined a program organized by Virtual Enterprises, in which they developed their business idea of NAVINDOOR.

“The whole idea started from the fact that we were trying to allow (Alp) to go to the supermarket by himself, and shop by himself, so we started exploring how we can do it,” said Mert Kanıbir. 

While there were other products that they could buy to help with indoor navigation, they were expensive and not widely accessible. Sooner or later, the twins realized that they would have to take matters into their own hands and develop an app — something like Google Maps, but for indoor spaces. 

Their idea eventually gained a lot of traction and they started joining competitions, winning them and getting on the radar of other entrepreneurs and investors. They started working with Mission 3A, a company that calls itself a “venture studio,” helping startup founders in their entrepreneurial journey.

“That’s when we started to focus on making this real rather than a project,” Mert Kanıbir said.

The twins were a little too good at telling their story — Alp Kanıbir would preface every step in their journey with an exact date, and the two would gracefully pass the baton to each other mid-story. “I think Mert can continue from this,” Alp Kanıbir would say. “With that being said, I think Alp can add some stuff,” Mert Kanıbir said routinely.  

Dealing with interviews seemed to have become second nature to the twins. Evidently, they had much practice in explaining their journey and their project while engaging with peers, investors or other journalists. “It’s pretty amazing when a 50-year-old entrepreneur comes up to you and says, ‘Wow, this is so inspiring to me,’” said Mert Kanıbir.

The twins’ project NAVINDOOR has caught the attention of investors in the U.S. and Turkey, and led them to win multiple awards. Photo Erin Edwards

Virtual Enterprises invited them to a gala this May, in which they got the opportunity to present their work and raise awareness on the hardships faced by the visually impaired. “It was such an incredible moment to notice how far we came from that devastating day in Turkey,” said Alp Kanıbir.

They were also invited to the Turkish Embassy in Manhattan, where Alp Kanıbir received an education achievement certificate. 

The twins hope to take NAVINDOOR further while in college, where they would have access to the necessary research programs and resources. And their dreams extend beyond college — Alp Kanıbir wants to be a lawyer and Mert Kanıbir wants to pursue computer science. 

“I was always inspired by the book To Kill A Mockingbird,” Alp Kanıbir said. He wants to be the next Atticus Finch. “Well, then, I’m gonna be the next Steve Jobs,” Mert Kanıbir added while grinning.

The twins have big dreams, and an even bigger drive to accomplish them — but what seems to be the most inspiring is their devotion to each other. 

They work together, they study together, and they also play together. “He has a beeping ball that we can use to play soccer just like we used to in the old days. That’s another way we cherish our old memories, how we used to do these things,” said Mert Kanıbir. 

A young Alp Kanıbir goes to sleep on Mert Kanıbir’s lap. Photo courtesy Mert Kanıbir

Alp and Mert Kanıbir support the Turkish soccer team Galatasaray, and much to everyone’s amusement, the twins were sporting Galatasaray’s colors during this interview, with Alp Kanıbir wearing yellow and Mert Kanıbir red — it is unclear whether their choice was deliberate, but the acknowledgment of the colors of their sweaters made Mert laugh nevertheless. Team colors are a big deal in Turkey, to the point where the first association you make upon seeing a certain color combination is the team that it represents (God forbid you accidentally wear the rival team’s colors!).

While soccer may not be as prominent in the U.S., the twins’ reverence for soccer doesn’t seem to have faded one bit.

And while their maturity transcends well beyond their age, they’re still, in the end, boys together — tremendously excited about the world that is opening up in front of them and refusing to leave anything behind. 

The Turkish name Kanıbir roughly translates to “their blood is one.” Although the name is quite apt for Mert and Alp Kanıbir, what they have is much more than a blood bond: “Our bond goes, you know, far beyond what can visibly be seen between us. It’s a shared understanding that connects us in this world,” said Mert Kanıbir. 

Throughout the whole interview, the Kanıbirs were sitting shoulder to shoulder; after it was over, they walked away arm in arm, and side by side.

To learn more about Alp and Mert Kanıbir click here.

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