Public Release: 

Purdue research lab, startup awarded NIH grant to advance autism technology innovation

Purdue University

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Federal funding will help advance a Purdue University autism technology that helps communication and language development for children and families affected by severe, nonverbal autism and other communicative challenges.

SPEAK MODalities, a startup commercializing the autism technology apps SPEAKall!® and SPEAKmore!Ô, and the Purdue University Augmentative and Alternative Communication Laboratory received $152,599 in a one-year Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, Phase 1 grant through the National Institutes of Health -- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, with another $50,000 in matching funds from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and Elevate Ventures. The SBIR program is a competitive awards-based mechanism that supports small businesses in research and development activities to fully explore their commercial and technological potential.

The SPEAKall! application has been downloaded more than 32,500 times and is used by seven augmentative and alternative communication centers and 14 speech and language clinics across the globe. The funding will enable further development of SPEAKmore! and related mobile technologies for advanced speech and language training and progress tracking in children with minimal verbal communication skills. It is estimated that up to 66 percent of the 2 million individuals diagnosed with autism are initially non-verbal and do not develop sufficient speech and language to meet daily communication needs. A video about the company can be viewed at

"There are so many challenges that children and families face when managing the various autism symptoms and I believe an inability to engage in communication and learn language is one of the most frustrating because it limits participation in educational and social environments. That makes it difficult for parents and caregivers to provide urgently needed assistance and instruction," said Oliver Wendt, co-founder of SPEAK MODalities and Purdue assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and educational studies. "The SPEAKall! app has made a tremendous improvement in establishing functional communication and emerging speech and language for children and adults on the autism spectrum, but we need to do more. The generous funding from the NIH, and the state of Indiana through Elevate Ventures, will provide us with the resources we need to advance new integrated technologies to help these individuals go beyond constructing simple sentences, grow their vocabulary and learn new language concepts and communicative functions."

The funding will be used to prove technical and clinical feasibility of three new integrated technologies for language learning through augmentative and alternative communication.

"The clinical research process provided through the SBIR award enables us to expedite the move of these new mobile technologies to the public and provide a novel set of intervention tools to help children and families with communication challenges," said Michael Zentner, co-founder and CEO of SPEAK MODalities. "We believe the technology will help individuals produce more complex sentences and generalize newly learned language concepts that go well beyond what is currently available."

SPEAK MODalities recently announced an agreement with Sonzia, a manufacturer of uniquely accessible touch screen devices for individuals with special needs, to provide the SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! apps pre-installed on a large touch-screen learning platform.

"The touch-screen platform allows children to interact more easily and learn together and that increases their social interaction skills, which is very important for their overall growth and participations in society," said Diana Hancock, co-founder of SPEAK MODalities and commercialization director of information technology at Purdue University.

Earlier this year, SPEAK MODalities received a Certificate of Recognition from the state of Indiana for making a critical impact on the lives of Indiana families affected by autism. SPEAK MODalities also received the 2015 Best of Education Tech Mira Award from the Indiana TechPoint initiative and placed second in the 2015 Purdue InnovateHER competition. Wendt was awarded the "2015 Outstanding Research of the Year" award by the Autism Society. The company won the International 2014 GAIN-TEN Business Pitch Challenge, an award for startups that have the potential to make an impact on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2013, the SPEAKall! application was recognized with the Focus Award for outstanding contribution to the furthering of Purdue's commitment to disability accessibility.


The SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! technologies are patented and licensed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. SPEAK MODalities receives entrepreneurial assistance through the Purdue Foundry, a startup support center based in Discovery Park's Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, and Wendt has participated as a scholar in the Purdue Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy.

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