Family Hack Turns Into EdTech Startup

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreaObzerova

Annie McAuley knows more than most people about recovering the power of speech and developing speech in children who are challenged or on the autism spectrum.

It is knowledge that comes from personal experience. McAuley was an elite skier but was knocked unconscious by some skis falling from a chairlift as a teenager.

It put her in a coma, and when she recovered, she had to re-learn how to walk and talk all over again.

Sometime later, after recovering and then completing a Ph.D. and becoming a medical researcher, McAuley noticed that her daughter was having trouble speaking and was growing increasingly frustrated at not being able to communicate.

During one particularly fraught incident at home, McAuley’s son came to her with a suggestion for his younger sister’s problems.

“He said, ‘maybe you could make everything in our house talk to her like the table and the cup, and you wouldn’t have to be pointing to things all the time,’” McAuley remembers.

‘Family Hack”

It was a seed that grew initially into a “family hack” to help her daughter but has now evolved into a speech therapy startup launched in both English and Mandarin called TalkiPlay. It uses RFID sensors, a bespoke blue-tooth, and a WiFi device, all enabled by cloud technology.

“Originally, I taught myself how to code on YouTube, and the first thing I made in our house was an RFID tag attached to a chair,” says McAuley.

“And I made a cute looking device which looked like a phone, and when she held it next to the chair, it said ‘chair’, and she looked at me and pointed at it like she had made a discovery. And then I started doing more things with it and made tags for the table and the window and the door.”

McAuley kept developing the solution, buying consumer electronic devices, repurposing them, and pairing them with what was essentially homemade IoT technology. She used a pay reader and connected it to the back end of her website, which worked fine until Chrome shut down the autoplay function.

“So for a child with autism to start interacting in a group activity with their peers, that is one of the biggest outcomes”

When that happened, McAuley started getting serious and entered a business accelerator program and worked with an app development team.

Nearly five years from these early iterations designed to help her daughter, TalkiPlay is now a complete end-to-end speech therapy solution for young children, combining a bright yellow device that picks up signals from the RFID sensors.

There is a whole library not just of words but structured games that help children develop their vocabularies and speech patterns and help them with social confidence. For example, educational programs around dinosaur hunts and planets educate the children and build their language confidence.

The cloud is the big enabler. This is where the games are stored and where the interactions' data go for anonymized analysis.

Sustainability dimension  

McAuley has also put aside her budding career in medical research to become an EdTech entrepreneur, working on TalkiPlay with her husband and business partner to spread the word among the speech therapy professionals who will recommend the product and become its advocates.

“We conducted trials with preschools and around 1,700 kids, and I was using that information to build the commercial product that would be available for parents at home,” she says.

There is also a sustainability dimension to TalkiPlay. Parents are encouraged to purchase old second-hand and recycled toys as objects to attach the RFID sensors.

“All of a sudden, for a couple of dollars, an old yellow toy truck is an interactive learning device, and that’s something which is not going into landfill,” says McAuley.

TalkiPlay is expanding its range of solutions into Arabic to add to the Japanese, Mandarin, and English solutions already available.

Two weeks into the launch, the product is available for purchase online direct, but there are also referrals from clinicians as a channel to market.

“I think that is a beautiful approach because you’re getting that recommendation from someone who really knows their stuff, and that can be a real point of difference,” says McAuley.

As for her daughter, now 7, McAuley says she now “talks too much” and has become a confident “child activist” with a widening circle of friends.

The social aspect, she says, is a surprising but welcome by-product of the solution, which has been observed in other children as well.

“As a case study, there was a child with autism who was refusing to practice language with their parent and teacher,” says McAuley.

“But at their first sessions with TalkiPlay, that child started to engage, and other children came over to see what the child was doing and came over to join, and then they started participating in a group activity.

“So for a child with autism to start interacting in a group activity with their peers, that is one of the biggest outcomes as well as significantly improving language development outcomes.”

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreaObzerova