Helping infants ‘talk back’ to better support neurodevelopment
We help infants express themselves through an at-home version of a scientific tool that is used to study neurodevelopment
Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)
One major change since the early submission period is that we consolidated 3 submissions into one single proposal and changed the title. Our original first three submissions each represented one of the value propositions of our single platform, however all of these applications were difficult to communicate in a single submission. With our mentor’s (Sarah Surrette) help, we were able to create an User Experience Map in order to better communicate our product in one post. Since the original, we have added more visuals, such as a User Experience map, to better communicate our idea.
Our surveys and focus groups helped us realize that while parents and pediatricians are interested in tracking neurodevelopment, they often do not have the time or resources to carry out this developmental surveillance. This made us realize that we had to also focus on how our platform can also address a more immediate need of caregivers. To do this, we increased focus on how we could help parents have back-and-forth communication with their infant, and how we could create an alternative to passive screen time.
We have refined our submission after interviewing pediatricians and realizing that our product can address a pain-point we had not identified earlier. Multiple pediatricians mentioned hurdles communicating with non-English speaking parents during an infant’s well child visits. We updated our User Experience Map to show how our product can help parents and pediatricians better communicate when they may not share the same language.
Finally, we have updated our business viability section based on extensive customer discovery through our NSF SBIR program. We have discovered new strategies to sustain our goal of keeping the costs low for families by instead focusing on possible revenue streams from researchers trying to develop new NICU products focused on neurodevelopmental outcomes.
Name or Organization
Brainchild Technologies, LLC
The company is located in Baltimore, MD, however we plan to implement this idea across the US.
What is your stage of development?
Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD
What is the stage of your proposal?
Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.
Academic research has long used infant sucking behavior as a way to study neurodevelopmental milestones like language, however this equipment has not been available outside of a laboratory setting. In this video, our collaborator Dr. Christine Moon presents newborns with sounds from different languages to measure if they already prefer their mother's native language just from hearing it in utero.
This work has been funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program
Statistics on developmental disorders
Statistics on access to mobile devices and screen time use
Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)
Our innovation will increase the confidence of everyday parents who are trying to advocate for their baby during infant well child visits. We give this objective, evidence-based behavioral assessment tool to the caregivers who know an infant the best, and make it feasible and rewarding for caregivers to track health within their already busy schedules. By democratizing this scientific tool, we are also expanding knowledge of infant neurodevelopment beyond the typical small academic studies that do not always factor in the wide diversity of experiences of families across the country.
Select an Innovation Target
Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.
Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)
please refer to separate email for proprietary description
What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)
Infancy is a critical window for neurodevelopment, however it is difficult to track the milestones of brain growth when infants have limited means to express their internal experiences. Pediatricians may rely on parent self-report to learn about key neurodevelopmental milestones at each infant well child visit, however these milestones can be subtle or ambiguous. Often parents may not label or interpret behaviors the same as a pediatrician or cannot communicate their concerns well in English.
Explain your idea (5000 characters)
Please refer to separate email for proprietary description and User Experience Map
Who benefits? (1500 characters)
To evaluate the potential for our technology, we have conducted extensive market research with caregivers of infants, conducting surveys, focus groups, interviews, and pilot testing with new parents and pediatricians. What we have found is that infants, both those that are healthy as well as those at-risk, will likely benefit from this technology. Helping infants communicate can help reduce frustration and also give a head start to learning language and cause-and-effect. Infants at-risk for developmental disorders will benefit from increased opportunities to identify and track delays, as well as additional ways to practice communication. Caregivers, including parents and pediatricians, will benefit from more objective tools to track neurodevelopment in infants, helping parents and pediatricians communicate about any red flags that parents may have observed at home. This may benefit infant suffering from neurodevelopmental disorders that are often missed in the first years of life, such as with autism spectrum disorders. In particular, this may benefit populations that have difficulty communicating with pediatricians, such as non-English speaking populations, who often have even more delays for diagnosis of autism.
What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)
As development in infancy can have life-long impacts, our technology can lead to benefits across the lifespan. Our product will have long-lasting impacts in multiple ways:
By increasing opportunities for back-and-forth interactions, our product will improve the daily lives of infants and caregivers by improving communication and reducing frustration. At the same time, it is likely to have long-term impacts on language development, as infants will be given earlier and more frequent chances to practice back-and-forth communication.
Children are increasingly inundated with screen time and despite cautionary guidelines, screen time seems likely to increase. Our technology would catalyze positive change by providing a replacement of screen time with more interactive and educational options that encourage social interaction.
Improved communication between pediatricians and caregivers can help identify signs of possible neurodevelopmental disorders earlier, increasing the chances of early interventions that could lead to improved outcomes.
Finally, increasing observations of neurodevelopment across diverse families will help improve our understanding of the sources of and interventions for neurodevelopmental disorders.
How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)
We are excited for the opportunity to partner with an organization that keeps in mind the impact on low-income children. While we have had some success pursuing private investment in the past, many investors are interested in ‘premium’ smart baby products that price out the majority of families. We hope to develop a business model that keeps our hardware costs as low as possible to decrease any barriers to entry, so that all children can access our interactive platform.
In particular, we believe this will help minority and non-English speaking groups have more support when advocating for their infant’s health in medical offices. Minority groups are diagnosed 1-2 years later than other groups for autism spectrum disorders, and we hope to help close that gap.
If we received funding from this competition, we would be able to invest more in lowering the cost of our device. In particular, we are looking to lower the cost of goods so we can bring down the price point of each pacifier as well as increase access to lower-income or immigrant populations by developing the app on Android platforms and ensuring the app functions on most older software versions.
Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)
Our platform provides both a new way of engaging end users, as well as a new application of an existing technology. The most innovative aspect of our device is that it combines neurodevelopment tracking with features that also meet the daily needs of caregivers. We believe the best tool is one that people will actual use. Compared to other neurobehavioral tracking tools in development, like eye-tracking or facial recognition, our product is not an extra chore for already busy parents. Instead, we have innovated on this existing technology to focus on how it can also address more pressing pain points in providing educational, interactive experiences for infants and in reducing passive screen time.
Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)
Our aim is to develop a low-cost product ($10-20) that pairs with users’ existing smartphones and can be sold through consumer channels. The product is relevant for all parents of infants (4M each year in the US), however our initial addressable market would be limited to parents who have smartphones (about 86% of US mothers) and to infants that use pacifiers (about 70%). Initial traction can come from those parents with concerns on neurodevelopment, such as the 10% of families with a pre-term infant. We are looking at customer acquisition strategies through programs like BabyBox, where all new parents received a basket of products from a government or private program.
We aim to keep the cost of the device low while maintaining business viability through additional revenue streams. One potential market is the infant and toddler educational toy industry ($4.5 billion industry) that is interested in infant-controlled toys and devices. They may also value our data insights to better design products that engage infants and lead to improved learning. Finally, we are conducting customer discovery with researchers in the neonatal medical device field who are trying to develop NeuroNICU centers that focus on healthy neurodevelopmental outcomes.
Our biggest barriers to scaling will be engaging enough parents to build meaningful data insights on neurodevelopment. We are working to find the right champions in the early education space to help us increase parent engagement.
Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)
The basic concept we are using has been successfully demonstrated in an academic setting for the past 50-60 years. Our own team has tested out the end user interest in our own new applications through extensive market research and prototyping. We previously investigated the feasibility of our updated hardware design through the NeuroLaunch Startup Accelerator. There we conducted focus groups with parents of infants and successfully tested out a proof-of-concept in initial pilot groups of infants. We are now developing a beta version of our prototype and an initial app through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant program, which include extensive review of technical and commercial feasibility through a peer-review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF). For the next year, we have non-dilutive funding to conduct a clear, peer-reviewed plan towards implementation, including the involvement of subcontractors and consultants with the technical expertise to carry out the work. After successfully demonstrating a proof-of-concept, we will be eligible for Phase II SBIR funding, which can total an additional $750,000 of non-dilutive funds. These government funds, however, are restricted to the research efforts to verify our proof-of-concept and cannot cover many important costs, such as patenting, marketing, additional research, and early production. Supplement funds from the Open Ideo award would allow us to supplement our SBIR funds and provide a clear pathway to getting our technology into the hands of caregivers and infants.
Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)
One of our biggest priorities is to keep the cost of the hardware as low as possible in order to increase access to a wide range of socioeconomic groups. This however creates risk in our business model as it limits the revenue stream through the hardware purchases. We believe this could be supplemented by business with the infant and toddler educational toy industry, but this would require the right connections to find ideal strategic partners. One barrier to this business model is the concerns over technology and electronics with infants. There has been an increase in infant smart products that have business traction, however there is threat of a growing backlash to a flood of baby tech products that lead to a ‘wired baby’. We are trying to address this with parent interviews and determining where we can help mitigate some of the problems of ubiquitous technology, as opposed to adding to the problem.
Researchers and companies that have strived to develop interventions for at-risk infants, such as the wide-variety of medical devices in the NICU, have limited means to see how their devices can protect healthy neurodevelopment. In recent years, there has been in increase in the number of NeuroNICU centers, designed to be sure they are not further damaging neurodevelopment. However, it can be difficult to track outcomes as most studies have to wait 2-3 years to have an outcome measure for neurodevelopment. Having access to a large dataset of neurodevelopmental milestones in a diverse population could help researchers identify products that damage or benefit neurodevelopment sooner. This path however brings with it regulatory hurdles in obtaining the proper approvals for software and medical products.
Groups developing early educational products may also be interested to know what toys and products infants respond to and whether or not they truly promote neurodevelopment. This would be a way for companies and parents to both verify that early educational products actual benefit the growing mind of the infant.
As part of our current NSF SBIR funding, we are conducting intensive customer discovery to verify our business model, including talking to representative customers in pediatrics, medical devices, health data tracking, and early educational products. We also have access to mentorship on our business model development through Larta Institute.
HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)
We incorporated a human-centered design by relying on Lean Startup methodology to constantly go out and talk with potential users before going back and iterating on our original idea. Our project began with the realization that most caregivers have difficulty tracking neurodevelopment at one of the most critical ages for interventions. We hypothesized that some of the tools used by academic scientists to understand the growing mind might be useful to parents and pediatricians as well. Before even showing potential users these different technologies, however, we sought feedback from a wide-range of caregivers to learn what their pain points actually are.
We observed what parents were saying in day-to-day conversations and on social media, showing that some parents thought they should be more aware of neurodevelopment, but it wasn’t something they were focused on in the first year. They also mention the need to find healthy ways to keep their baby entertained for just a few minutes while they got done other tasks. We followed up our observations with a brief survey to gauge parents’ interests in neurodevelopment and other activities, and also their views on technology and how much they relied on screen time. The survey revealed that parents had some interest in neurodevelopment and understanding what their baby was thinking, but were most interested in early educational products. Most parents also reported discouraging or limiting screen time.
We followed up this survey with various focus groups with new moms to dive into these issues further. In these open conversations, parents again reiterated some interest in understanding neurodevelopment, but felt like it would be more ‘work’. Interestingly, as opposed to the survey, many parents kept bringing up an interest in understanding what their baby was thinking and having better ways to communicate. Also in person, many parents said they discouraged screen time, but admitted that their baby had some screen time with trusted brands. This helped us consider that parents may have conflicted feelings about screen time, and while they try to avoid it, admit that it is ubiquitous and still use it at least on occasion.
Our focus groups were followed up with one-on-one interviews with parents and pediatricians. We had the opportunity to talk to parents who realized their child had autism or other developmental disorders early, and how they had to fight to convince the medical community that there was problem. Pediatricians also clarified that there is little focus on neurodevelopment in the first year and that they often rely on parent self-report, which can be a challenge with non-English speaking parents.
Considering these points, we shifted our focus to developing the engaging elements of our device that would help meet the immediate needs of the parents in understanding their infant and replacing passive screen time. We created an early version of our prototype so that we could test out this important factor of parent and infant engagement and verify that it would be a fun and rewarding experience for both. We have taken in their feedback and are working to adjust the connected software and sounds and images to be something that engages infants without creating a painfully repetitive or irritating sound for parents.
We also focused on putting the device in the hands of the parent as opposed to the pediatrician to help parents better advocate for their infants. Finally, we realized the importance of addressing the needs of the non-English speaking communities and laid out plans to lower the cost of the device and make it more accessible.
Tell us more about you (3000 characters)
Our three co-founders came up with our idea when two members of the team were expecting their first child. We are an international team from the US, Germany, and Sweden, that met while studying at a joint program between the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and the National Institutes of Health in the US. Trained as neuroscientists, we of course had questions on a baby’s growing brain and were wondering how we could better understand it. We are a creative, yet objective team who are passionate about bringing science out of the laboratory and to the hands of the general public.
Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)
We have a strong academic and technical background, and have surrounded ourselves with complementary support from the NeuroLaunch startup accelerator, incubator communities in Maryland, and mentorship resources through the SBIR program. We have also created partnerships with hardware and software designers, leaders of social media parent groups, and experts in the original academic technique we are iterating on.
As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)
We appreciate expertise in media use in children, educational mobile applications, as well as pediatricians doing well child visits and screening for neurodevelopmental disorders.
Would you like mentoring support?
If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)
We generally need feedback on the perceived relevancy and impact of our project descriptions. Our technology is relevant for multiple applications but we appreciate feedback on whether or not our descriptions needs more specificity and detail.
Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?
Yes, share my contact information
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