Web-based speech therapy service dubbed ‘SMB of the year’

Don’t let the name TinyEYE Therapy Services fool you – the small Saskatoon-based company is using simple online technology to change children’s lives in a big way.

Using three straightforward tools – a webcam, a telephone headset, and high speed Internet service – TinyEYE provides kids around the world with crucial speech language therapy despite a severe shortage of treatment specialists, especially in remote areas.

Now the five-year-old company has won two honours at the 2011 Ingenious Awards: small to medium size private business of the year, and the judges’ prize, given to a winner that unanimously impressed two separate judging panels. The awards were launched this year by the Information Technology Association of Canada to honour excellence in the use of technology to improve the performance of large and small business, government operations and not-for-profit groups.

An example of some speech therapy games TinyEYE will employ online.

It all started around Christmas of 2006 with CEO Greg Sutton asking his sister Marnee Brick why she was so hard to get a hold of all the time.

“She was always busy and I wanted to find out what she was so busy doing,” Sutton recalls.

Turns out Brick was driving back and forth to clients’ homes and schools in her dual roles as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and human resources director at a private speech therapy firm. The pace exhausted her and cut into her actual therapy time with clients, who were mostly kids.

Sutton, who has a finance degree and formerly worked for an online travel startup and a biotech firm, was CEO of the Saskatchewan Advanced Technology Association at the time. He suggested that Brick use a webcam to provide virtual speech therapy to some clients, and the seed of TinyEYE Therapy was planted.

“In my naiveté I thought it would take only six months (to build the company ). Here we are five or six years later and we’re still working on it,” Sutton says.

Some universities were doing research on Internet-based therapies back then, Sutton says, but there were no commercialized applications of it that he knew of at that time. Sutton obviously makes no claim of inventing webcam-based learning and treatment, but says he simply brought the main ingredients together specifically for SLP purposes.

“We used the frameworks that were available and built upon them,” Sutton says.

It wasn’t easy setting up the business at such an early stage in the evolution of broadband Internet .

“Five or six years ago when we started the company, 50 per cent of the schools didn’t have high-speed Internet or webcams. It was really an unfeasible market when we started. It was before Youtube. It was a completely different world,” Sutton says.

“But now the demographics of the decision makers in the school districts (means they) have grandchildren in another city and they’ve all done Skype with them. That’s been one of the biggest door openers for us.”

TinyEYE has since charged through that door, completing more than 45,000 online speech therapy sessions in four languages with over 3,000 kids in 12 countries. The company also offers services to adults, including speech recovery for stroke patients and accent reduction for people learning a new language. The distance learning component is a big draw for some pretty unique clients.

“We have some top PGA golfers and other athletes that are always on the road. We had a travelling circus too,” Sutton says, explaining that TinyEYE has signed non-disclosure agreements to protect those clients’ identities.

The biggest benefit for clients and SLPs alike is they don’t have to leave home for therapy sessions. Most of TinyEYE’s 35 SLPs work from home in North America, but the technology allows the company to employ therapists in five countries who offer treatment in English, French, Spanish and Dutch. Reduced travel time has boosted the amount of time SLPs spend on therapy (versus travel and administrative work) to about 90 per cent, Sutton says, up from about 60 per cent previously.

A study on telehealth effectiveness by Kent State University found that 84 per cent of clients using the TinyEYE program met their treatment goals compared with just 46 per cent in a control group.

TinyEYE isn’t the only company offering e-speech therapy today, but it claims to be one of the first. One thing that sets it apart is that it developed its own software to help clients and SLPs schedule their sessions and track their progress, and also developed its own online games to help its younger clients during treatment. The company has two full-time software and game developers on staff and has about 150 game titles in its catalogue.

The original plan was to licenc e and sell the games widely, but now TinyEYE gives the games away for free to schools and focuses on providing online therapy through SLPs instead. A company in Holland is franchising the model for TinyEYE now, with a recent push to expand in Germany.

Asked how the cost of TinyEYE speech therapy compares with traditional in-person treatment, Sutton says the firm researches local SLP rates and tries to match them to stay competitive. But is there a bit of a personal cost to SLPs and their clients, the loss of a shared face-to-face bond now that they no longer meet weekly over tea at someone’s house or share a snack in the classroom?

“We’ve had kids get up and hug the computer at the end of a session or high-five it,” Sutton says, adding that in some remote northern Canadian communities school attendance jumps by 50 per cent on days when kids know they’ll be online with TinyEYE therapists.

Christine WongChristine Wong is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow her on Twitter, and join in the conversation on the IT Business Facebook Page.
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