On a trip back home to North Carolina, Chad Myers (MBA ‘04J) met up with a friend and advisor, Sandie Barrie Blackley, and told her he was looking to get back into entrepreneurship. At that stage of his life, some two years ago, Myers was teaching at INSEAD and running the school’s International Centre for Entrepreneurship.
Blackley suggested that her work with dyslexia treatment was ripe for technological innovation. “We talked more and learned of our mutual interest in helping people with reading disabilities because we have both have had family members who were struggling readers as children,” Myers told Knowledge.
The two then spent four months writing a business plan, creating a prototype game, and talking with investors. In January 2009 they officially formed the company Mind InFormation when their first investors came in.
A learning disability
Dyslexia manifests itself as a problem with literacy skills -- reading, writing and spelling. Short-term memory, mathematics, concentration, personal organisation may also be affected.
An estimated one in 10 children suffer from dyslexia, although some studies suggest the figure could be as high as 15-20 per cent. “It’s mind-boggling when you think that 11 million children in the United States alone suffer from some form of reading disability,” says Myers.
A person with dyslexia can find it difficult to organise himself, follow instructions, read maps and give directions. At school it can lead to underachievement, low self esteem, accusations of not listening, not concentrating or laziness, and the child can resort to bad behaviour. Myers saw first hand how the condition affected his sister’s early self-confidence and academic career. “My sister was held back in second grade due to her reading disability, and had we had the technology and a well-trained clinician back then she would have been able to be remediated in a drastically shorter amount of time and would have avoided much of the stress she endured due to her disability,” he recalls.
The Lexercise model
According to Myers, research shows that the most important thing for dyslexia treatment is daily practice to re-wire the brain. “Our programme called Lexercise provides daily practice through its online platform. The other area that research says is important to overcoming dyslexia is for practice to be individualised to the client -- focused on the specific needs of the individual,” says Myers.
It is a standard practice now for the child to have an hour’s session with a specialist twice a week but this online platform reduces the number of trips to the clinic and can cut treatment time in half, argues Myers. For clinicians, the online tool allows them to provide customised treatment over the internet and monitor its effectiveness remotely.
“Kids like technology and so Lexercise is therapy disguised as a video game,” says Myers. “Clinicians can intervene faster and the major advantage is that it allows them to scale their businesses.”
Connie Williams, a speech-language pathologist in a public school in North Carolina, has been using Lexercise over the past school year to help students improve their reading and spelling skills. “I find it to be an excellent tool to simplify planning and to customise my sessions for each student. The reports feature helps me to determine in which areas my students have specific weaknesses and may need extra practice. It has also made it easier to determine which skills the student has mastered and whether they are ready to move on to the next level,” she told Knowledge.
Her students enjoy the games so much that several of them asked if they could get on the programme more than once a day. Since daily practice is crucial to progress, the students get daily reading practice without really recognising it as such. “They are extremely motivated by the points system and often stop me in the hallway to report their points totals. After completing a unit, I often present text for my students to practice reading. Because these students are not accustomed to success in reading, they often quickly look at the text and say, ‘I can’t read this.’ When I explain that the text contains words we have practised in Lexercise, they look at it again and read it successfully,” says Williams. “It does wonders for the students’ self-confidence and self-esteem, which is often tied to their academic success.”
A couple of other companies -- Hooked on Phonics which produces CD-ROMs and Fast ForWord which makes online games -- are also operating in this space but Myers doesn’t see them as direct competitors as they do not offer full solutions for dyslexia treatment and are not as customisable.
Funding and revenue
Myers raised over US$500k in seed funding and is now looking to raise a US$1m Series A within the coming months. This money will be used to create additional games and to employ more staff.
The product has been tested by 25 clinicians in Singapore, Canada and the US. “The feedback we got was that the parents loved it and the kids found it fun and engaging,” says Myers.
“We are just starting sales with the public launch of our site. It will take us 1.5-2 years to break even,” says Myers, who adds that clinicians are charged subscriptions for using the product. “We are also looking to create word of mouth marketing in the dyslexia treatment industry.”
The next round of funding needed to grow the company will be for $2.5 million. Total capital would be $3-4 million. In five years’ time, they “hope to be making more than $50 million and closing a deal with a large buyer that can take the company to greater heights.”
“Our goal is to set the world standard for dyslexia treatment while returning excellent returns to our investors,” says Myers.
The right partnership
Myers recently moved his office from North Carolina to San Francisco to be closer to the company’s Chief Technology Officer and the three to five outsourced programmers -- and he says the move has paid off because he could see the difference in the progress of the venture. Another reason for the move is that Silicon Valley is the place to look for funding.
Myers says the firm’s competitive edge really is Blackley. With 35 years' experience in healthcare, linguistics, research, academia and face-to-face private practice in this area, she is the brains behind the science of Lexercise. Myers deals with the business principles and translates the science into technology.
“We have the key to the right business partnership on a lot of levels,” says Myers. “Sandie is like a second mother and I trust her implicitly and our skills complement each other’s.”
More than the potential earning power of the product, they would like to make an impact on the lives of these kids, their families, and society as a whole. “If we can help these kids to become active contributing members of society who are not depressed and flunking out of school or in extreme cases getting involved in criminal behaviour or committing suicide, we have achieved our goal.”