The Gift of speech
As a child, Alex Levy witnessed Parkinson’s disease rob his grandfather of the ability to speak.
“I just remember ‘that’s Grandpa. Grandpa gets around in the scooter and doesn’t talk,’” says Levy, the 25-year-old CEO and co-founder of MyVoice Communication Aid. “You kind of wonder what he would have said could he have spoken.”
It’s likely Levy would have found out had his grandfather lived to see his invention—MyVoice, a slickly designed communication aid app for iPad, iPhone and Android devices. Users with speech difficulties press images, words and phrases on-screen, which the app then “speaks” out loud.
It’s effective, easy-to-use and, most importantly, customizable. A user, or their friends and family, can visit any web browser to add words and phrases they commonly use. Plus, using the GPS built into most smartphones, MyVoice is able to detect the device’s location and quickly provide relevant words, such as “popcorn” at a movie theatre or “tall coffee” at a Starbucks.
This ingenuity, and the $189 price tag—other aids are often bulky, complicated, and cost upward of $10,000—have led to rapid success. Launched in April 2011, MyVoice currently has 12,000 users in 30 countries, has been featured on Canada AM, CBC News and CityNews, and won Levy PROFIT magazine’s 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year FuEL award.
Not bad for an idea founded without any commercial ambitions.
Levy was working as a research assistant at the University of Toronto’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab while completing his political science degree. A stroke patient challenged the lab to produce something better than the slow, battery-hogging, cumbersome communication aid he was using. As a response, the team, led by Levy, created the design for MyVoice.
The researchers knew they were onto something as soon as users started testing the app.
“People kept saying ‘How much is it? We want to buy it.’ And we kept having to say ‘You can’t buy it; it’s not a product,’” says Levy. “We realized—if this many people assumed this was a ready-to-go commercial product, maybe it is a ready-to-go commercial product.”
So, Levy and his team turned the project into a business.
They’ve started small. The company only has five employees—Levy, co-founder and chief technology officer, Aakash Sahney, and three other staffers.
The group has received assistance from organizations like Google, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Ontario Centres of Excellence. But the team’s principal investors are a number of their family and friends—there might be more money available from banks, venture capitalists or other sources, but the team wants to keep its autonomy to take MyVoice in the direction they feel is right.
So far that means continuing to update the app to better serve its primary users—people with autism, cerebral palsy and stroke-related aphasia—rather than expanding the app into more mainstream areas, such as language translation. Such a move may appeal to a broader base of users, but it would also water down functionality, and have a much less profound impact on those with communication challenges.
Tyler Austin is a non-verbal teen with cerebral palsy. The team showed him MyVoice at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, but weren’t sure if he understood how it worked. That changed as soon as he got his hands on their iPad—Levy says Austin started operating it better than any user they’d seen. The results got even more amazing when the team took him to the building’s Tim Hortons.
“He wheeled his wheelchair around and he zips on over and orders his mom a French vanilla latte,” says Levy. “You can imagine how she felt. It was a huge breakthrough.”
Levy says that, like Austin, many people who face serious communication challenges haven’t received adequate assistance.
“It’s estimated 9 out of 10 people who could benefit from a communication aid don’t have one,” he says. “Can you imagine if 9 out of 10 people who could benefit from a wheelchair didn’t have one? That would be absurd.”
Levy blames a slow-moving communications aid field. Although the app outperforms and is much less costly than mainstream products, there’s resistance from those who consider the iPad a toy rather than a real platform for assistive technology. Plus, Levy says many organizations are simply accustomed to spending big premiums on assistive devices, and have little interest in more affordable alternatives.
“They have to get up from their chair and either reallocate a budget or change the reimbursement code,” he says. “There’s inertia any time you want to change the way organizations do what they do.”
But, such challenges notwithstanding, MyVoice’s user base keeps growing. Word of mouth, and the company’s social media efforts—Andi Wilson, their part-time social media director, keeps the company interactive on Facebook and Twitter amd spends hours on consumer, advocacy, research and healthcare forums to stay in touch with the company’s potential users—are driving people to MyVoice. And the team has big plans for the future. Levy hopes to add support for additional languages to the application by year’s end, and says the company is working on new developments that will make it even more accessible and easy to use.
Levy says that work is incredibly rewarding. He studied political science to understand the social dimensions of issues and do meaningful things to change them. But, because of MyVoice, he’s found technology can change lives as effectively as political advocacy. And, thanks to the colourful, dynamic nature of the app, says Levy, some children have not only gained or regained a voice, they’ve gone from getting snubbed by their classmates to being envied for having such a fun, innovative device.
“This,” says Levy, “is a really cool way to empower kids.”