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Essential Highlights from the Google- Autism Speaks Pitch Playground

Winner Steve Espinosa (PuzzlePiece) holds $25,000 prize check. From left to right, Ned Sahin (Brain Power), Steve Espinosa (PuzzlePiece), Daniel Smith (DELSIA), and Rob Ring (Autism Speaks).

Winner Steve Espinosa  of PuzzlePiece holds his $25,000 prize check. From left to right, Ned Sahin (Brain Power), Steve Espinosa (PuzzlePiece), Daniel Smith (DELSIA), and Rob Ring (Autism Speaks). All photos via Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD.

On March 12, 2015, the Google-Autism Speaks “Pitch Playground,” was held at Google Cambridge, giving almost a dozen promising tech startups up to five minutes each to pitch innovative digital apps for autism to a panel of expert judges. Each startup could win prizes worth a total of $50,000. Here’s what you missed:

The Background

Akili Labs recently announced a clinical collaboration with DELSIA, the venture arm of Autism Speaks, which emphasizes the importance of medtech in the field of autism research. Some of their past work focused on a range of clinically validated video games for cognitive assessment and personalized treatment. The “Pitch Playground” is just one extension of this growing relationship.

The Reasoning

Why are these startups interested in the autism market? Why do autism researchers support new technological innovations?

1. Increased Prevalence Yields Immense Demand

There is a sizeable, and growing market for assistive digital products to help people with autism. One in 68 children in the United States has an autism diagnosis, and the prevalence continues to grow. This growth places tremendous demand on educational, medical, and therapeutic services for these individuals.

2. Technology is a Fantastic Communication Tool

People with autism, by definition, have a degree of difficulty communicating, especially in social situations. Many children with autism also interact with digital devices well, and it is with these skills that technology can act as an assistive visual and auditory aid for communication. Recognizing this relationship allows for tech companies to find new ways to elicit communication for individuals who would otherwise find social circumstances challenging.

3. The Demand for Quantitative Data

When gathering quantitative information, the vastness of data has the potential to overwhelm the human mind. This is where modern day technology fits in quite nicely. Big data and digital findings could improve upon the often subjective and interpersonally variable opinions that autism researchers utilize at present.

4. Human Intervention is Costly

There are currently no effective medications that treat the main symptoms of autism. Some behavioral therapies are effective when used early, but these therapies can be too difficult to obtain, or too expensive for families. New apps could expand access, potentially bringing services straight to the home. Provided that the digital solutions are cost-accessible, there is an immense opportunity to scale up services far beyond our capacity to train qualified human teachers and clinicians.

The Event

Dr. Ned Sahin, CEO of Brain Power, gave the opening keynote, asking audience members some key questions: What kind of health system would we have if learning algorithms were continuously assessing a million digitally monitored people? Can the use of technology foster brain-to-brain communication, thus bypassing the need for language? How can big data optimize population health management but also pioneer discoveries needed to deliver precision medicine?

Sahin also outlined the need to let the people with autism guide product development. “Autism is not your customer,” Sahin said. “Autism will not write your check.” Autism has long been seen as a cause for charity, but if backed by good science, it can foster a foundation for investment and business, too.

The Pitchers

Nearly a dozen startups pitched their ideas to judges. The winners were…



Intervention: Providing therapy/social skills

Prize: $25,000

On the Market? Yes

Super Special Feature: Their special autism tablet only costs $9.95

PuzzlePiece teaches patients about life challenges using social stories. A child can take a picture of themselves and insert it into the app to observe themselves walking through social stories. According to PuzzlePiece founder Steve Espinoza, a former Google employee, behavioral therapists already use these social stories widely. “We wanted to take all the daily challenges that parents have, and create an app for all of them,” Espinoza said. At these extremely affordable price points, PuzzlePiece makes itself accessible to a wider social demographic. After purchasing the tablet, parents can access the PuzzlePiece app and game for less than $30 a month.

SECOND PLACE: NODA (from Behavioral Imaging)


Intervention: Providing diagnoses

Prize: $15,000

On the Market? Yes

Super Special Feature: Slashes the waiting time for an autism diagnoses

NODA is a remote autism diagnostic service that aims to dramatically cut the waiting time for an autism diagnosis. Autism is diagnosed largely based on behaviors, but waiting times for a diagnosis can be as long as a year in some parts of the country. NODA uses a simple mobile app that families use to record key clinical information in their own homes, transmitting that data to clinicians who analyze the videos, and generating a report based on the diagnostic criteria. The clinicians are then able to complete the diagnostic process in a couple of hours. NODA allows clinicians at local sites to start therapy services sooner. “This moves the therapy paradigm way down, so we can get from 4 to 5 years, to as early as two years for therapy services,” said Rem Fox, Chief Operating Officer.


InfiniteachIntervention: Education

Prize: $10,000

On the Market? Yes

Super Special Feature: Digital lessons customized with data-driven algorithms

Infiniteach created Skill Champ, an iPad application that focuses on visual learning to produce a customized preschool curriculum that algorithmically adapts the difficulty of presented tasks. The first version comes with 10 skills to test, including “picture match” and “number find.” Different themes, such as animals, can be selected and overlaid on every skill, allowing a child’s interests to engage them further with the activity. Parents can then “replay” parts of their child’s interaction with the app. The second version of Skill Champ is due to be released in the next few months.

Thanks to Taylor McMahon of Emerson College for background research on this article.

Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD

Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD

    Arshya Vahabzadeh M.D. is a physician psychiatrist who is committed to addressing the nations most pressing healthcare needs through medical innovation, in particular the challenges faced by individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions. He is the upcoming Chairman of the Council of Communications of the American Psychiatric Association and a consultant to Khan Academy & Neurolaunch. He is widely published in clinical neuroscience and medical communication. Dr. Vahabzadeh has written numerous media editorials and leads a federally funded program to provide autism educational outreach. He has received over 15 national and international awards.

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