Purdue startup wins 2014 GAIN-TEN Business Pitch Challenge for speech and language programs to help children with autism

October 16, 2014  


Oliver Wendt, at right, assists Steve Rettig of Lafayette, Indiana, and his son, Stevie with using SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! Both are iPAD applications that help families dealing with nonverbal autism improve communication. Wendt, a Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, co-founded SPEAKMODALities LLC in 2014 to commercialize advanced versions of the technology. (Purdue Research Foundation photo/Vibha Salgamay)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — SPEAK MODalities LLC, a startup commercializing an iPad application to help improve communication for children and families affected by severe, nonverbal autism, received top honors at the 2014 International 2014 GAIN-TEN Business Pitch Challenge.

  The award is given annually by the German Academic International Network – Transatlantic Entrepreneurship Network, or GAIN-TEN, to startups that are commercializing an innovation of strong market viability that has the potential to make an impact on both sides of the Atlantic. 

SPEAK MODalities is providing iPad apps called SPEAKall!™ and SPEAKmore!™ which help children with autism develop functional communication and emerging speech and language skills. SPEAKall!™ is an autism-specific communication app that helps children construct and speak out simple sentences via graphic symbols. SPEAK more!™ targets vocabulary learning and enhances complexity of utterances in learners with autism at the beginning language stage. 

The company's technologies were 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. Wendt collaborated with students in 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 and Language Clinic.

"We developed the SPEAKall! app and began providing a free version through iTunes in 2012, and within a year the app was downloaded more than 10,000 times," Wendt said. "Even more importantly, research on the app has demonstrated benefits for children, families and caregivers who face the challenges of nonverbal autism."

It is estimated that up to 66 percent of the 2 million children diagnosed with autism are initially minimally verbal and do not develop sufficient speech and language to meet daily communication needs.

The free version of SPEAKall! provides for the management of up to 20 graphic symbols, two activity sheets and one learner profile. The overwhelming success of the free app resulted in a demand for support and advanced features.

This early success led to the creation of SPEAK MODalities, which was founded in 2014 by Wendt, who serves as chief science officer, Michael Zentner, CEO and a Purdue ITaP senior research scientist, and Diana Hancock, COO and Purdue ITaP commercialization director, after the team secured an exclusive license through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization.

"We worked together to develop advanced support that children and families needed," Hancock said. "From this we built upgraded versions of the app called SPEAKall! Premium and SPEAKall! Premium Plus that are even more powerful but still affordable."

Upgrades to the free version, which consumers can subscribe to at a small monthly fee, include the ability to select pre-recorded or synthetic speech, manage several learner profiles, track user performance, use a special set of highly iconic graphic symbols and organize content into media libraries. A multiple learner management system also is available in the premium version of the app.

SPEAK MODalities received guidance from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurial hub in the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, 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.

"The success of SPEAK MODalities is a collaborative effort," said Zentner, who also assists faculty with commercialization projects through the Purdue Foundry. "We have established partnerships with several speech and language clinics and the technology has been adopted by facilities across the United States and in Germany."  

The SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! apps have been adopted for use at San Jose State University in California; University of Central Florida in Orlando; Snowflakes Centers for Children with Autism in Virginia and Maryland; the Autism Center at the University of Northern Texas; Class Inc.: Communication, Language and Speech Services in Tacoma, Washington; San Francisco Unified School District; Lilli Nielsen School in Kiel, Germany and Pestalozzi School in Böblingen, Germany; Indiana Association for Behavior Analysts; Cornerstone Autism Centers in West Lafayette and Greenwood, Indiana; and Hopebridge Pediatric Specialists, Marion, Indiana.

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

The company is part of the Purdue Startup Class of 2014 where 24 startups based on Purdue intellectual property were launched in the 2014 fiscal year. A video about SPEAK MODalities is available at http://youtu.be/AabR3FV9roY and further product information can be found at http://www.speakmod.com.

In 2013, SPEAKall!™ was recognized with the Focus Award for outstanding contribution to the furthering of Purdue University's commitment to disability accessibility.

For information on other Purdue intellectual property ready for licensing and commercialization, visit http://www.otc-prf.org. For more information about available leadership positions, investing in a Purdue startup or licensing a Purdue innovation, visit http://www.purduefoundry.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 U.S. Services provided by this office support the economic development initiatives of Purdue University and benefit the university's academic activities. The office is managed by the Purdue Research Foundation, which received the 2014 Incubator Network of the Year from the National Business Incubation Association for its work in entrepreneurship. For more information about funding and investment opportunities in startups based on a Purdue innovation, contact the Purdue Foundry at foundry@prf.org  

About SPEAK MODalities LLC

SPEAK MODalities was formed in 2014 and obtained an exclusive license to the SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! technologies from the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization. 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 severe communications disorders 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 

Note to journalists:  Here is a link for a video that accompanies this story. http://youtu.be/AabR3FV9roY

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