When Jack McDermott, A14, finished his midterm exams last fall, he hopped on the subway to meet his childhood friend, Michael Cotter, a student at Harvard. They were due to give a presentation about their new iPhone app, which offers on-the-go speech therapy, to the Harvard Tech Meetup, a loose organization of entrepreneurs, students, investors and engineers.
They rehearsed their talk in Cotter’s dorm room, and then learned they would make their presentation to an audience of 400, not the 100 they had expected. And instead of speaking in a lecture hall, they would be on stage at a Harvard Business School auditorium. As McDermott recalls, they were “freaking out.”
For McDermott, the presentation was a chance to share his big idea. But it also presented a challenge: He had started speech therapy at age three to correct his own stuttering problem.
More than three million Americans stutter, which appears to be mostly a genetic condition, according to the Stuttering Foundation. For McDermott, stuttering has been frustrating, but not overwhelming. He excelled in academics and sports, which, he says, helped him gain confidence and prevented other kids from teasing him.
The summer after ninth grade, McDermott enrolled in an intensive speech therapy program, which included using a technique known as delayed auditory feedback (DAF) to help him gain more fluency. The technique artificially modifies speech and then feeds it back through headphones so therapy students can hear how they sound and work to correct it. This kind of therapy requires someone to be tethered to recording equipment in a speech therapist’s office.
McDermott realized a couple of years ago that there was an easier way to deliver delayed auditory feedback therapy using a portable device that many folks already own. The result is Speech4Good, an application that can be used on an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad and the maiden product of Balbus Speech, a company McDermott launched in May 2011. (“Balbus” is derived from the Latin word for stutter and is the root of the word “babble.”) The app can be used for many types of speech difficulties, helping with fluency, articulation and voice therapy.
Speech4Good allows users to do speech therapy exercises and then listen to a recording of how they sound. Each lesson can be stored in a digital library, along with any notes the user makes. Users can check their progress by emailing the completed exercises to a speech therapist.
Speech therapists have used delayed auditory feedback for 30 years, but now anyone can have easy access to the technology. The Speech4Good app costs $19.99 and allows the user to personalize a practice session by adjusting the delay between speaking and playback on a touch screen, McDermott says. Another innovation is that users can see their speech in the form of sound waves: the smoother the waves, the smoother the speech.
McDermott is CEO of Balbus Speech, and brought in Cotter as director of public relations and marketing when the app was in development. The two used their own savings, plus money from family and friends, to start their business and hired a programmer to write the software for the app.
Tufts connections helped them get the business off the ground. Balbus Speech receives regular marketing and technical assistance from business consultant Tim Noetzel, A08, who has founded several startups. McDermott met Noetzel through Compass Partners, a national program run out of 10 universities that provides resources, training and support for student entrepreneurs who are working to solve social problems.
He got another assist from Tufts by participating in Imaginet, a student-run marketing communications club that helped him with copyright issues and his sales pitch. Club members designed the Balbus Speech website and logo. McDermott was also the 2011 winner of Tufts’ Paul and Elizabeth Montle Prize for Entrepreneurial Achievement, which provides scholarships to students who demonstrate business acumen.
The Speech4Good app went on the market in October and has been purchased by customers in the Philippines and the United Kingdom, in addition to the United States. Balbus Speech markets the product primarily through Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
“We’re really taking a social media stance on our marketing,” says McDermott. “It’s what we know best, and it’s the best way to get people to buy an application—where they already are anyway.” The company is selling to individuals and also working to identify and form partnerships with schools, hospitals and speech clinics.
An Entrepreneurial Streak
The business is humming along, but on their big day at Harvard last fall, McDermott says he and Cotter had more than a few jitters about talking in front of such a large audience. “I was more nervous about being able to show what we’ve done in a good light than I was about my speech,” he says.
A political science major planning on attending business school, McDermott hopes to build on his first entrepreneurial venture. “There’s nothing like the thrill of creating something from your dreams and starting to sell it and see people use it throughout the world,” he says.
It’s also rewarding, he says, to have found a way to take something that could have been an obstacle and turn it into something positive. “You can’t let it fester and grab hold of you and everything you do,” McDermott says. “You can’t let it make you not speak out loud.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.