Many children with special needs don’t have the fine motor skills needed to play games or use apps on tablets and iPads. Because of this, they can’t enjoy the latest technology like their friends and peers.
Dr. Ayanna M. Howard set out to change that.
A professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Howard used a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the springboard to inventing several inclusive technology devices and creating a technology spinoff in 2013 called Zyrobotics.
“The theme behind everything we’re trying to do is what we call accessible play,” says Howard. “Just because a child has a disability doesn’t mean they don’t like the same things as other kids. We’re trying to create something that any child would want, but that also happens to be accessible to kids with disabilities.”
After participating in NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program – which helps inventors determine if there’s a market for their product – Howard discovered that refining the original device would broaden its appeal to a much wider audience.
That “refined” product, TabAccess®, was released this year. It’s a wireless switch interface adapter that enables input devices such as big-button switches and sip-and-puff straws to interact with tablets.
Zyrobotics also developed Zumo, a patent-pending Plush Switch™ available in the shape of a turtle or ladybug. The product connects by Bluetooth to any iOS or Android tablet. Zumo’s sensors can be configured in different ways to increase functionality, with TabAccess serving as its “brain.”
While accessible play is at the heart of Zyrobotics’ technology, the products also have a therapeutic function. The company’s suite of apps includes several cause-and-effect games that help improve motor skills in younger children and others with motor impairment, making the products valuable in a clinical setting.
“When a child is first diagnosed with a disability, they don’t always understand that they need to move in order to progress in therapy,” says Howard. “At the beginning, clinicians will use this concept of cause and effect, meaning if you touch this, something amazing happens. It’s one of the hardest things to learn, especially for the younger kids. Our games are really designed so it’s exciting in terms of the cause and effect. Instead of saying, ‘Do your therapy,’ you can say, ‘Come on, let’s play a game.’”
Management Team and Funding
Zyrobotics is currently a member of Georgia Tech’s startup incubator and the Advanced Technology Development Center. The eight-member team is led by Howard and CEO Dr. J. MacCalla, who has a 30-year track record in managing technology companies.
With incubator support and the guidance of their business mentor, the startup is preparing to get in front of investors by the end of September or beginning of October.
“We’re going to be asking for around $230,000,” says Howard. “Angel funding, not Series A.”
Zyrobotics has already received funds from NSF and Georgia Research Alliance for technology maturation, as well as a small grant through the Wireless RERC program from Shepherd Center, a top rehabilitation hospital for individuals with brain injury and spinal cord injury.
“Shepherd Center is interested in using cause-and-effect data and analytics,” says Howard. “They are concerned with monitoring a patient’s progress, even after they go home, so they gave us a grant to help with analytics.”
Other health centers are also beginning to see the possibilities and value of Zyrobotics’ technology. The company has been approached by several VA hospitals, as well as facilities that work with Alzheimer’s patients.
“For now, our target demographic is kids,” says Howard. “I know that demographic and I have the resources, clinicians and hospitals in that domain. But there’s definitely an opportunity for expansion to older adults and veterans. As our population ages, ailments and disabilities become even more prevalent.”
In terms of Zyrobotics’ exit path, Howard already has some ideas.
“I think that we could go in the IPO direction or position ourselves to be acquired,” she says. “At the end of the day, we employ artificial intelligence and we do robotics. It’s a good time to be doing robotics as a startup, for various reasons. It’s becoming the next hot thing.”