Q&A with Katie Hench, Founder and CEO of Infiniteach
EdTech Times had the privilege to speak with Katie Hench, founder and CEO of Infiniteach, a company that develops evidence-based solutions for autism education that combine technology and training – particularly educational apps and custom trainings. Infiniteach is based in Chicago, at 1871. Here’s what Katie had to share with us!
Company at Glance:
Founders: Christopher Flint, Lally Daley, and Katie Hench
Category: Education (autism)
Product stage: Market
Company twitter: https://twitter.com/Infiniteach
Founder twitter: @Mr_Chris_Flint
Other social media: http://www.pinterest.com/infiniteach/
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in? Who are your core customers?
KH: Today, one in 68 children are being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a rate that has increased more than 600% in the past two decades alone (Centers for Disease Control, 2013). This staggering increase in the number of individuals with autism has created a void in effective services and products. And as the availability of resources fails to keep up with demand, most individuals with autism are failing to meet their fullest potential.
In the United States, is estimated that we will spend an average of $2.3 million dollars in lifetime care for each individual with autism (Autism Speaks 2012). Given the immense cost of private autism services, many families are turning to public schools to provide comprehensive therapeutic and educational programs for their children. School systems are struggling to provide the financial support, educational resources, and trained staff to meet this demand. As the prevalence and costs of autism education continue to rise, it is imperative that we develop comprehensive and cost-effective solutions that benefit every child on the spectrum.
Infiniteach was founded to change the way we approach autism education. We believe that every child with autism should have unlimited access to proven strategies that can increase their independence and help foster meaningful relationships. With the launch of our first app, Skill Champ, we have focused on reaching out to a target market of engaged, early adopters. Our target consumer is an individual teacher, therapist, or family who has a child on the Autism Spectrum with a developmental age between three and six years old. Ideal consumers are those that are eager to learn about and try new technologies and have easy access to an iPad.
ETT: How did you identify the problem you’re addressing, particularly in children with autism? What was your process in identifying it?
KH: Over the past five years, Infiniteach’s co-founders have completed extensive proof of concept through our work as Special Education teachers and autism trainers across Illinois and around the world. Together, the Infiniteach team has trained more than 10,000 teachers and parents in best practice autism interventions, and has presented the results of the effectiveness of these trainings at the International Meeting For Autism Research (IMFAR) in Toronto in May 2012 and Atlanta in May 2014. With the launch of Skill Champ, we have created a digital platform that incorporates the same, evidence-based strategies that are taught in these trainings.
ETT: And what was the process of arriving at the solution to this particular problem?
KH: In our current roles as trainers, we began to understand that the same challenges we faced as classroom teachers were prevalent in homes, classrooms, and therapeutic settings everywhere. Children with autism benefit from individualized curriculum and intensive, repetitive practice. To provide this, parents, teachers, and therapists spend countless hours prepping materials and providing 1:1 therapy.
With Skill Champ, we have built technology that allows for that same level of customization in a matter of seconds. Parents, teachers, and therapists can quickly and easily create customized lessons based on their child’s unique interests and skill level. The app teaches ten foundational level skills, including color and letter matching and happy/sad face recognition. Parents, teachers, and therapists customize each skill by selecting their child’s favorite theme. Skill Champ offers ten visually stunning, high-interest themes that combine with each skill to create a highly customized, enagaging lesson.
In addition to digital lessons, each Skill Champ lesson also comes with a printable curriculum to help children generalize the skills they have learned off of the iPad. Generalization is a concept that can be very challenging for individuals with autism. By offering a curriculum that bridges the gap between digital and non-digital learning, Skill Champ is creating a powerful continuum of learning between technology and the real world, and between school and home settings.
ETT: What makes your solution different from the competitors’ in the same space – what it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
KH: With more research showing the benefit of using technology to teach children with autism new skills, the autism education space is becoming increasingly crowded; however, given that this research is also relatively new and quickly changing, there are no companies that have a corner on this growing market. Larger app competitors are much more costly (upwards of $200), and unlike Infiniteach’s vision of creating apps to teach a comprehensive curriculum of new skills, a majority of competitors are focused primarily on maintenance of communication skills and completion of already learned routines.
Additionally, unlike competitors who use open source lesson sharing, Infiniteach is planning to create high quality, evidence-based lessons in-house. We are guaranteeing the high quality of each lesson, rather than having lesson quality be dependent upon the customer who created it. With the technology developed for Skill Champ, we will still be able to offer quick customization of each lesson, even as our learning platform continues to grow.
Another differentiator of Skill Champ is the focus on continuity of learning by extending school learning into the home and community. In addition to the customized printable curriculum currently offered with Skill Champ, future versions of our learning platform will encourage and support on-going communication between home, school, and therapeutic settings. Parents and therapists will download a free, ‘lite’ version of the learning platform to access digital homework lessons that have been assigned by their child’s teacher. By linking school, home, and therapeutic learning, teachers, parents, and therapists can connect content, reinforce skills, and create a consistent learning environment for each child.
ETT: Please tell more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones.
KH: We launched Skill Champ in April 2014. It is free to download and includes three free skills. The remaining skills and themes can be purchased for $0.99-$1.99, and each skill comes with the printable curriculum. Parents, teachers, and therapists can also purchase all 10 skills and 10 themes for the discounted price of $16.99.
Version two of the app, due to be launched in early 2015, will expand our target market from individual teachers to schools, therapy centers, and school districts. The expanded platform will include a growing number of lessons and greatly increased functionality in data collection and analysis. Educators and therapists will be able to share data, homework lessons, and goal progress directly with home iPads, creating continuity of learning across all environments.
As our user’s skills grow, so, too, will the curriculum that we offer through our learning platform. We believe Infiniteach’s long-term benefit for individuals with autism will be to increase job readiness and skills for independence in our young adults. Currently, the majority of the $2.3 million dollars being spent across each individual’s lifetime is “incurred during adulthood, principally due to the cost of residential care as well as loss of productivity, underemployment and unemployment among adults with autism” (Autism Speaks, 2012). Though statistics vary, a study published by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 33% of young adults with autism were employed, a figure that is “nearly half that of all young adults with disabilities” (NLTS2, 2009). For the Infiniteach team, these statistics are unacceptable. We are committed to continuing to develop products that encompass all of the skills necessary for success in adulthood, including academic and daily living skills, as well as social and communication skills.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
KH: In 2005, Chris developed Ready 2 Learn, a series of interactive educational products that are designed to meet the unique learning style of children with autism. He was the lead content developer, and engaged adults with autism to help put together the curriculum. (Infiniteach is also dedicated to employing adults with autism as we grow.)
Chris is also the Founder and President AACTION Autism (www.aactionautism.org), a humanitarian organization that provides autism trainings in developing countries. AACTION was founded in 2006, and Katie joined as Director in 2010. AACTION Autism has directly trained more than 750 teachers and parents from countries throughout Southeast Asia and Northern Africa in best practice autism intervention. Utilizing asset-based community development, AACTION is focused on increasing local capacity, adapting assessment tools and interventions to be culturally appropriate, and fostering new relationships with partner organizations from around the world.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?
KH: We have many mentors who help us with everything from product development to business strategy. We have sought out business mentorship through alumni networks, including Teach for America and the University of Notre Dame, as well as through the Small Business Association (SCORE Chicago). In Fall 2013, Infiniteach was accepted into 1871, an acclaimed co-working space in Chicago for digital startups. Through this community, we have met individuals from a variety of backgrounds who serve as sounding boards for the decisions we are making.
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years – both in general and for students on the autism spectrum?
KH: I think the technology market will absolutely be growing over the next few years. As you might expect, we have found that the adoption and implementation of technology is highly varied across school districts. Interestingly, we have seen that implementation can be the trickiest part – even if there is access to technology, fitting it into an already busy school day can be challenging. There is a learning curve around how to incorporate technology throughout a day, rather than just during a ‘computer time’, and that learning curve can act as a barrier to effective implementation.
ETT: Do governmental and other related regulations help or hinder the development and innovation in educational technology targeted at individuals on autism spectrum?
KH: At this point, I am not sure we have had enough interaction with government regulations to know either way. I do believe, however, that some school regulations around the purchase of both hardware and software for the classroom can hinder a teacher’s ability to effectively implement technology with his/her students. Some schools or districts have excellent, simple processes that encourage these purchases, while we have spoken with other teachers who go through laborious processes to acquire even free or low-cost software and applications.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market, particularly in your space?
KH: Prototyping is key in our field! Each child with autism is so unique that the challenge really lies in figuring out how to leverage the power of technology to create programs that can be customized and adapt to each child’s learning styles. It is crucial in the development process to be in the classroom, or in the home, to really understand what is working, and what is not working, for each child.
There is such room for development within the autism education space – as we learn more about why technology works so well for so many of our children, it will be extremely important that we develop programs that also fit seamlessly into the lives of the adults that are overseeing the development of these children. Raising any child takes a village, and this is especially true for children with autism.
EdTech Times is grateful to Katie Hench for speaking with us, and we suggest you check out Infiniteach at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.