Purdue startup formed to advance technology to help children, families affected by severe, nonverbal autism

March 13, 2014  


Oliver Wendt

Oliver Wendt, a Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, demonstrates the SPEAKall! app, which allows the user to select images to create a sentence. The technology and its advanced version, SPEAKmore!, are available through SPEAKMODalities LLC, a startup commercializing the innovation. (Purdue Research Foundation photo)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — SPEAK MODalities LLC is working to advance and commercialize a Purdue University developed technology to improve communication for children and families affected by severe, nonverbal autism.

The company's technologies SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! are iPad applications developed from research by Oliver Wendt, a Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and educational studies who has worked with children diagnosed with autism for more than 20 years.

SPEAKall! is designed to help children with severe nonverbal autism by using photos and graphic symbols that represent what a child wishes to say and helps the child construct sentences from those images. SPEAKmore! is designed for children who have advanced beyond the initial app and now need to expand on vocabulary and complexity of messages.

"The app was launched in 2012 as an initial free version through iTunes and was quickly adopted by the autism as well as the augmentative and alternative communications communities," said Wendt, who co-founded and serves as chief science officer for SPEAK MODalities. "Within a year the app was downloaded more than 10,000 times and proved to be successful for families and caregivers."

Wendt autism

A child affected by severe, nonverbal autism uses the SPEAKall! app to communicate during a session in Purdue's speech, language and hearing sciences department. (Purdue Research Foundation photo) 
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It is estimated that up to 66 percent of the 2 million children diagnosed with autism are initially nonverbal and do not develop enough communication skills to meet daily communication needs.

"We are working to help these children and their families. The overwhelming success of the free app resulted in a demand for support and advanced features," Wendt said. "We could not provide advanced support through the basic SPEAKall! program, so we started looking at other ways to meet this need."

With guidance from the Purdue Foundry, the Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy and funding through the Purdue Innovation and Commercialization Center (ICC-IT) and the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization Trask Innovation Award, SPEAK MODalities was formed to further advance and commercialize the technology.

Michael Zentner, SPEAK MODalities co-founder and CEO and a Purdue ITaP senior research scientist who assists faculty with research projects through the Purdue Foundry, and Diana Hancock, SPEAK MODalities co-founder and COO and Purdue ITaP commercialization director, helped Wendt develop an advanced version of SPEAKall! and create SPEAK MODalities. 

"I'm glad we were a part of helping this important Purdue project reach more affected families as it matures, and I'm happy that the Purdue Foundry could continue to work with this innovation as the Purdue Innovation and Commercialization Center and Foundry merged," said Gerry McCartney, Purdue CIO and inaugural director of the center.

"We recently launched a SPEAKall! 2.0 version that includes a free trial for users, as well as in-app purchase options for premium features for those who want advanced support," Hancock said.

The free version of SPEAKall! provides for the management of up to 20 graphic symbols, two activity sheets and one learner profile. Upgrades to this version include the ability to select pre-recorded or synthetic speech, add literacy labels to graphic symbols, track user performance, and organize content into media libraries.

Premium versions of the app, available for purchase, enable enhanced features and expandability including:

* Access to four different synthetic voices.

* Unlimited symbols, unlimited activity sheets and two learner profiles.

* Unlimited symbols, unlimited activity sheets and unlimited learner profiles.

The app was originally developed under Wendt's leadership by Purdue's Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program in conjunction with the Purdue Augmentative and Alternative Communications Research Lab and the Purdue Speech-Language Clinic.

Wendt's research is sponsored by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a statewide project involving Purdue, Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame, and is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Organization for Autism Research, and the Purdue University Center for Families.

SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! are patented through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization and have been licensed to SPEAK MODalities. For more information contact the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization at 765-588-3470, otcpatent@prf.orgor SPEAK MODalities at info@speakmod.com.

A video about the SPEAKall! app can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPy2NSYtj7U and information about SPEAK MODalities is available at http://www.speakmod.com. 

About Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization

The Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization operates one of the most comprehensive technology-transfer programs among leading research universities in the United States. Services provided by this office support the economic development initiatives of Purdue University and benefit the university's academic activities.  

About SPEAK MODalities LLC

SPEAK MODalities was formed in 2013 and obtained an exclusive license to the SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! technologies from the Purdue Research Foundation. The first commercially supported version of SPEAKall! was released in January of 2014.  SPEAK MODalities has a mission to expand the reach of SPEAKall! and subsequent products that assist children with special needs to develop speech and language skills. 

Writer: Cynthia Sequin, 765-588-3340, casequin@prf.org 

Sources: Oliver Wendt, 765-494-2462, olli@purdue.edu

Michael Zentner, 765-494-7705, mzentner@speakmod.com

Diana Hancock, 765-494-0840, dhancock@speakmod.com

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