Jack McDermott says he’s happy he stutters. Not because it's easy, by any means, but because, as a business owner, it gives him a unique insight into his customers' needs.
He's the founder of Balbus Speech, a Boston-based maker of speech therapy apps, born out of McDermott's own experience. Growing up, McDermott would take a train 45 minutes from his home outside Boston to his speech pathologist's office, which cost McDermott's family anywhere from $200 to $400 an hour over the course of his 15 years in therapy.
When Apple launched the App store in 2008, McDermott realized there could be a better way.
It really clicked for me," he says. "I was like how cool would this be if I had software in my pocket and could do speech therapy whenever I wanted?"
In 2011, entering his sophomore year at Tufts University, McDermott launched Balbus Speech. Its two apps, Speech 4 Good and Fluently, are both based on proven speech therapy technology. Speech 4 Good's two key features are an audio graph that visually tracks people's speech patterns and a delayed audio feedback tool. When users speak into the phone, the delayed audio feedback feature echoes the speaker's voice through his headphones, but at a slower rate of speech, which is proven to improve fluency. The second app, Fluently, helps stutterers practice speaking gently, another fluency technique. When the user speaks gently into the phone the screen stays green. When the app records harsh sounds, it turns red.
The apps have now been downloaded nearly 10,000 times, and while other speech pathology tools like delayed audio feedback machines can retail for thousands of dollars, Speech 4 Good and Fluently cost just $15 and $10, respectively. Keeping costs low has paid off. After just a year in business, Balbus Speech turned a profit, generating $20,000 in sales in 2012.
But Balbus Speech's advisors believe speech therapy is just the beginning. Scott Weller, co-founder of SessionM, a start-up that helps mobile developers with engagement, says Balbus Speech's success could mirror that of the now booming mobile health and education industries. "I think Jack is just scratching the surface of what is possible, and the opportunity for him is big," he says. "As these devices become more prevalent and advanced, it's going to really disrupt how personal healthcare works for people."
McDermott, now a junior at Tufts, says his next step is to build an enterprise app for speech pathologists, already a huge portion of his user base. After that, he has his sights set on the wider world of special education. "The more our products can facilitate the special education experience," he says, "whether they're geared towards speech impediments or not, the more successful we will be."
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