Interview: Speech Therapy Goes Digital With BlubBlub
Every startup, no matter what field it’s working in, sets out to solve a problem. But none of those are more satisfying to fix than those in the healthcare arena. ‘Changing lives’ is an overused term in the startup world, but it’s entirely apt when we’re talking about ideas that might take a disease, disability or discomfort out of someone’s daily existence. Nothing matters like health matters.
Take, for example, a child with speech difficulties. The bullying, frustration and lack of confidence that’s a frequent consequence can affect their long-term future in any number of ways. The Slovenian founders of BlubBlub know this only too well. All of quartet had their challenges growing up. In their case they dealt with them early enough - their dedication to fixing their problem giving a hint of things to come in adult life.
And though these entrepreneurs may have succeeded in fixing their speech issues - even mastering the devilish Slovenian ‘r’ sound - many kids don’t. Not all kids have the same commitment to doing the rather dull speech exercises tradition demands. Not all parents know how to help their kids, and not all therapists know that the homework they prescribe is being done. Jernej Fuzir and Mitja Mavsar, who met at a startup event in 2012, thought there must be a better - and somewhat more digital - way of doing it.
Enter Blub Blub and its interactive, gamified speech skills app. Their platform not only offers a standalone home speech exercise system (Speech Blubs app), but a way for therapists to use it for personalized treatment (Pro Blubs).
Speech Blubs primarily features fun video exercises that are actually engaging for kids. Wonderfully simple it may be, but sometimes the best products are exactly that. What’s really important is that this is a tool that can solve a problem worth solving.
“If you take your child to a speech therapist, you usually end up with a really ugly piece of paper that’s not engaging for kids,” says Fuzir. “And a sheet of paper isn’t going to win against Minecraft on the tablet.
“Kids should be practicing daily, but parents don’t know how to motivate them apart from by nagging. Actually a lot of parents don’t know how to play with their kids in general, which can result in speech delay. That’s an issue and that’s the main problem we wanted to fix.
“So we started digitizing practice. Video is the next best thing to real face to face interaction. We got a speech therapist on board and created an app to launch in Slovenian market. We just posted it on a blog and on Facebook, along with the story of why we’re doing it - and we had people calling us the same day! Parents, speech therapists and media, they all wanted to know more.
“After that response we thought ‘we’re onto something. This is a problem worth solving.’ And from then on we really fell in love with the problem.”
In 2015 the pair had another two founders on board, had applied for a grant from their government, and launched the Slovenian-language app that December. Two years later, with Pioneers Ventures now among their backers, they’ve picked up over 50 000 users after developing an impressive array of interactive ‘Speech Blubs’: Early Sounds for the youngest toddlers, Mouth Gym to work on oral muscles and First Words for kids ready to move to the next level (words).
Along with the Snapchat-style fun elements that really ramp up the engagement, video of real kids talking is another essential feature. Today’s typical child growing up with a tablet doesn’t see as much of that as you might suppose.
“Most content on screens shows characters that are animated and don’t make natural movements. If you want to learn language, you need to stare in somebody’s eyes and watch their mouth. It’s imitation. We see our app as a solution because it’s a child looking at another child’s face, which triggers the right natural brain imitation processes.”
The founders are keen to stress that none of this is meant to be used in isolation. The app is for kids and parents to use together. It’s certainly not an excuse for parents to check out - rather a chance for them to use technology as a guide to enhance the natural speech learning process.
While Speech Blubs are simple and effective to use without professional help, Pro Blubs gives a child’s therapist the chance to get involved by embedding their own exercise content into the app. This not only means tailored content that can address that child’s particular issues, but also solves the problem of therapists not knowing whether time really has been spent on exercises. In essence, Pro Blubs digitizes and tracks daily speech homework.
With Pro Blubs, therapists can upload a variety of media content (for example ‘selfie’ videos the child should imitate) as well as pick and choose the most relevant existing Speech Blubs exercises. These come together within an additional, personalized tab in the user’s Speech Blubs. The therapist can set daily targets for exercises to be completed, and also able to view which steps a child has gone through on a given day.
All of this is coming together very nicely from a traction point of view. App currently has 50000 users, while therapist take-up has also been impressive. Over 2000 qualified speech therapists are already using it in schools and clinics.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Speech Blubs are not just a tool to tackle relatively subtle speech issues taking root, but have also had a positive impact on kids afflicted by Apraxia, Autism, Down’s syndrome, ADHD and SPD. And so, as for every startup working in the healthcare arena, we take our hat off to them. Because they really can change lives.
*Search for “Speech Blubs” in App Store (Android coming soon) and download it for free. Or follow this link.
If you are a speech therapist you get Speech Blubs for free on a permanent basis, and are also entitled to a two-month trial of Pro Blubs.*