A few years ago, Rob Laffan was waiting in line at a chip shop near his home when his phone beeped. It was a text message from his daughter, with a simple instruction: “I want chicken nuggets.” Seconds later, another followed: “I want fries.
It may sound like an everyday interaction but for Laffan and his daughter, Sadie, this was an exceptional moment that marked a major breakthrough in their relationship. Sadie, who had been diagnosed with autism and experienced difficulty communicating her needs verbally, had just used her father’s invention, TippyTalk, for the first time.
The ‘Out-of-Room’ Approach
TippyTalk is an app inspired by PECS, or ‘Picture Exchange Communication System’, an established method used to assist non-verbal people with communicating a want, desire, need or a feeling.
Using this system, a non-verbal child or adult can point to a picture of their need or want in their ‘PECS book’ so that their caregiver can provide it for them. However, the method requires that both people be in the same room in order for it to be effective – and so, it can’t substitute for those moments when a child might need to call out to a parent or caregiver from another part of the house.
Rob and Sadie had some success with the book-based method, but he recognized an opportunity for the system to be improved upon by using more up-to-date technology.
“Sadie doesn’t sleep much,” said Laffan, “And it was during one of those late-night sessions that I asked myself: What if she could select her pictures on a screen, and send that information to me as a text message?”
That way, Sadie could ask her dad for what she needed, or tell him how she was feeling, whether he was on the other side of the room or the other side of the planet. This ability to communicate over long distances is one of the key features that marks out TippyTalk as a true trailblazer in its field.
“At TippyTalk, to date, we’re the only ones who are focusing on an ‘out-of-room’ approach to non-verbal communications,” said Laffan. “With all other solutions, you need to be in the same room as the person you’re communicating with, which is very limiting – not to mention out of step with today’s connected world.”
Laffan added that they have Facebook and Twitter, and can communicate with anyone. He feels that non-verbal people have been left behind in this sense, which makes this a matter of technological equality. By acting on his lightbulb moment, Laffan has helped improve access to communications technology for non-verbal people around the world.
A Solution for Sadie
In early 2010, Laffan worked as a pharmaceutical sales rep, but his career in the sector was cut short as a result of the economic downturn, and he was laid off. Concerned for the security of his family, he decided to take action and learn new skills. He saw a potential for employment in the engineering sector and enrolled in LIT to study Automation and Robotics.
“It was about six weeks after I started the course when we noticed that Sadie wasn’t developing as you’d expect a child to develop,” said Laffan. “She wasn’t interacting, playing with toys or speaking – so alarm bells started ringing. All signs were pointing to autism.”
Sadie was eventually diagnosed, and the family began to engage with various programs that supported interactions between children with autism and their families. At this point, Laffan also began to relate his studies in automation and robotics to the work they were doing at home to support Sadie and decided to focus his final year project on solving an issue that had become central to his family’s life. And once that penny dropped, the rest fell into place remarkably quickly.
“For six months, I built out the code and the program,” said Laffan. “In April, I finalized it and introduced it to Sadie. Then, after only a day or two, we had our first communication: the order for chicken nuggets!”
Project to Product
A string of successes at nationwide student awards convinced Laffan that he could translate TippyTalk from a final year project into a marketable product.
“After my final year project presentations, someone asked me if I’d heard about the [Irish] Student Entrepreneur Awards. I looked it up and I thought, that’s something I should look into – even if to only get placed, said Laffan. “In the end, I entered, and I won it. Then the same thing happened at the Innovative Student of the Year award. I was called up to the final and won again. That was when I realized that this was the real deal. At that point, talk of finding jobs was in the past – TippyTalk was my job.”
A stint in Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers program – a “boot camp for entrepreneurs”, as Laffan puts it – was enough to fill in the gaps around how to commercialize and build out the business from that initial spark of inspiration. It was through this work that Laffan made a fundamental decision to shift the offering from a hardware product to an app, in order to reduce the cost from a large outlay to a monthly user service charge.
“Some people become verbal over time, and some people don’t,” Laffan explains. “Changing from hardware device to an app meant that people could use it for as long as they needed to and didn’t have to invest long-term.”
Using an app also means that parents and caregivers can capture photographs of particular items from the non-verbal person’s life via the camera function on their phone or tablet. They can also record speech to accompany the picture, which further encourages the development of language skills.
“With Sadie, we’re now focusing on her verbal communications and TippyTalk has made that process much easier,” said Laffan. “In times of overwhelming stimulus, when she can’t get the appropriate reaction out, the app is there. That’s a hugely important safety net for us.”
As well as facilitating private communication between non-verbal people and their families, the upcoming Version 2 of TippyTalk will also be aimed at the classroom, allowing teachers, special-needs assistants and caregivers to communicate with non-verbal people in their professional settings. Bringing the technology out of the home and into a public setting creates a truly unique opportunity to analyze the data from communications with non-verbal people.
“We’re creating a web portal where communications can be logged. This can be used for educational analysis, analyzing KPIs, and looking at variances between in-room and out-of-room communications,” said Laffan. “For example, we could find out what the most frequently requested items are, or which feelings are most prominent. We can gather data that has never been gathered before.”
Laffan suggests that this data can be used to make improvements in educational settings – analyzed to provide an indication of teaching quality, for example, or used to customize the curriculum of classes and school-based activities to better suit the interests of students.
Building out the B2B element in this way means that TippyTalk can make a positive impact on the non-verbal community in ways far beyond personal communications technology.
TippyTalk’s US Connection
While most of the team is based in Ireland, 81 percent of TippyTalk’s business is in America. They have strong bases in Texas and Wisconsin, where the app is state-funded.
“Anyone non-verbal with access to a speech and language pathologist can get our product for free in Texas, or for a $100 co-pay in Wisconsin – and in both states, that package consists of a consultation with a speech and language pathologist, an iPad and our latest launch, TippyTalk EDU,” said Laffan. “We just have to market to those states. We need to get in front of the end-user.”
But while Laffan has been busy developing TippyTalk into the global business it is today, his innovation has also been hard at work where it matters the most – at home, with Sadie, helping to nurture and develop the relationship he has with his daughter.
“When she started sending out her first texts, they were just items she desired – food, drinks, toys. But over the next few months, she started to express feelings. Her personality started to come through,” said Laffan. “Now she can even make a joke with us. She might send a message to me saying, ‘Hi Daddy, I feel sad’ – but when I’ll look over, she’s just sitting on the sofa, smiling away.”