Learning to speak is one of our earliest and most joyful tasks in life. It is key to our identity – helping us to forge our first relationships and participate fully in life. Most of us take this for granted, but for the child with a language delay, understanding and interpreting information is much more challenging.
For Greg Sutton and Marnee Brick – Co-Founders of TinyEYE Therapy Services – the need to reach more children – especially in remote or rural areas – with personalized speech therapy was compelling. In 2005, the brother and sister founded their Saskatoon-based, high-tech company that, with help from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), developed an online platform to deliver one-on-one language therapy services via the Internet to school children in Canada and around the world.
"The stakes are high," said Sutton, the company’s CEO. "Language delay can lead to self-esteem and confidence issues, compromising the route to independence."
"Marnee was working as a speech-language pathologist, putting in countless hours of driving from school to school. Often she saw only one student at each location. We could see that precious special education budget dollars were being spent on travel rather than children. We thought there must be a better way."
TinyEYE combines video-conferencing with advances in gaming technology to provide therapy services that are fun and engaging, available at a distance or to multiple children at the same time. Children log on either at school to work with a therapist or at home to practice game-based exercises. The company also offers a robot that can wander the classroom to give children the chance to interact with the therapist through a screen on its "head," and to allow the therapist to observe the child’s situation and interactions with others. Children love it!
"We wouldn’t be a business today without IRAP. At the onset there was too much risk for anyone to support a couple of crazy entrepreneurs - other than IRAP."
IRAP helps Canadian company with disruptive technology
Their starting point was to build prototype software that could reliably link the therapist and child visually in real time. Before long, they turned to IRAP for help in navigating the technical uncertainties and marketing challenges they were facing.
"They were trying to do something completely new, and that means a lot more than just building the technology," said Clifford Klein, the IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) who worked with the company. "You also have to get the right people into the company to build the business and research strategies to do all that."
"We were developing a disruptive technology and we really had to prove to customers and regulatory bodies that our idea was ethical, effective, and could help thousands of kids," continued Sutton.
Starting in 2006, IRAP helped the fledgling company hire recent graduates to continue the software development and conduct market research. This was followed by further projects almost every year to integrate advanced therapy procedures into the software platform, as well as high performance networking infrastructure and intelligent systems for business scalability.
"IRAP is a really good partner when you are in this scenario," added Sutton. "They have lots of programs for hiring recent graduates and other technical expertise. The ITAs are experienced, and very willing to provide mentorship, guidance and oversight."
The company flourished, getting the technology in place and picking up early customers in Canada and the United States. A study conducted at Kent State University showed the effectiveness of their approach, comparing students using online therapy through the TinyEYE platform with those using the in-person model. Almost twice as many of the online students (83%) achieved mastery of their communication goals as the traditional group (47%).
TinyEYE puts children first with innovation and technology
Today, TinyEYE’s online therapy services reach thousands of children in 20 countries around the world. The company has won 17 awards for excellence in health innovation, e-learning, and customer service. They employ hundreds of therapists, many of whom work from home. With branches in the United States and Europe, their business and technology headquarters remain in Saskatoon.
The company continues to work with IRAP to adapt their technology platform as they move into new markets and add capacity to help children in more languages and dialects.
"We wouldn’t be a business today without IRAP," emphasized Sutton. "At the onset there was too much risk for anyone to support a couple of crazy entrepreneurs - other than IRAP."
"We knew we had to create a profitable company to survive, but our number one priority is growing smiles, mending sprits, and engaging children in their lives."