Hear that? Those are the voices of tens of thousands of people in more than 30 countries who can speak electronically because of a chance meeting between a stroke victim and a young research assistant.
Alexander Levy was working in the computer sciences department at the University of Toronto. A man who had lost his ability to speak walked into the department looking for a better communication tool than the one he was using. Levy postponed the scheduled training program for his new job. Instead, he spent the next two weeks developing a software program. It eventually would become a technology platform supporting mobile health applications now used by customers around the world.
“Focus on the things that can really work, can really make a difference and can really excite other people.”|
–Alexander Levy, CEO, MyVoice
MyVoice, founded in 2011 by the now 27-year-old Levy, markets two mobile health applications that allow people with severe speech impairments to speak artificially through smart phones and tablets like iPhones and iPads. Though electronic equipment and devices to do the same have been around for decades, their high cost and clunky technology left them out of the hands of many patients.
Levy sees his work as giving voice to the voiceless. He’s helped improve the health status and overall quality of living for those whose ability to speak was destroyed by such medical conditions as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, stroke, traumatic brain injury, autism and more. He attributes his success to offering a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to existing products in the market.
“We give a voice to anyone who has a condition that makes it difficult or impossible to speak, using mobile devices at a fraction of the cost and with new technologies that are faster and easier that what came before,” Levy says.
Critical Factors to Drive Innovation in Health Care Policy
Levy developed MyVoice’s technology with the support of a number of grants, including several from Canadian governmental agencies. Specifically, Levy received the Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technological Entrepreneurship from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, funded by the government of Ontario in 2011. The two-year fellowship was worth $110,000. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada also is a financial supporter of MyVoice.
What can health care entrepreneurs do to increase the chances that their ideas will benefit from incentives created by policymakers? Levy offers two pieces of advice. First, a would-be health care entrepreneur should make sure his or her idea either addresses a problem that really exists or unlocks the potential in an existing system that allows it to overcome a long-standing barrier. And second, a would-be health care entrepreneur should focus on one or two transformative ideas at a time rather than 10 or 20 ideas at a time.
“Focus on the things that can really work, can really make a difference and can really excite other people,” Levy says.
When entrepreneurs focus their thoughts and energy on one or two big ideas at a time, the innovation outcome will be better. It will be easier to pitch the idea to potential sources of support or funding to develop the idea into a workable model.
The MyVoice mobile applications are based on predictive software that anticipates what a person wants to say after he or she types, taps or touches the first characters or words. The software is based on speech pattern data from such public sources as Google and Twitter and from a person’s own communication history to predict what the user wants to say.
Users also can program commonly used phrases into the applications and link those phrases via GPS to pull up the right phrase at the right time in the right location. For example, a user might program phrases to order an original blend coffee and an apple fritter at the local Tim Hortons. MyVoice’s technology allows people with even the most profound motor or vision disabilities to use its mobile applications.
Another differentiator for MyVoice is its business model. Rather than designing and manufacturing devices and equipment, whose cost would be added to the solution’s price tag, MyVoice opted for mobile applications that can be used on smart phones and tablets.
Consequently, the device and equipment cost is limited to the user’s purchase of an iPhone or an iPad. Costs typically run in the hundreds of dollars rather than thousands of dollars. The basic versions of both applications are free; users can license custom versions on a paid subscription basis for as little at $25 per month.
Market Adoption Strategy
Levy divides MyVoice’s “highly motivated” customer base into two: Families that want a speaking aid for a family member, most often a parent for a child with a disability; and clinicians who want speaking aids for their patients, most often a speech pathologist seeking a low-cost solution for a patient with limited resources. Given the end-user’s limited ability to communicate, MyVoice’s market adoption strategy targets their surrogates via educational programming and training through schools (for teachers and parents) and through health care organizations (for clinicians).
“We often start with one hospital or one rehab center or one school or one clinic adopting our communication aids,” Levy says. “But what we’d really like to see is this innovation adopted across the whole health care system in Ontario and across Canada.”
To make that happen, according to Levy, leaders at multiple levels of the health care system in Ontario — from the provincial government itself down to the heads of individual health care organizations — must create incentives for innovations like MyVoice to be used by frontline caregivers.
“The incentives have to be right in order to get any new major technology in health care or any other large, complex field adopted,” Levy says. “And that starts at the policy level.”