Stuttering is not considered a disability, yet it holds back some 68 million people worldwide from job promotions, class presentations, voicing their opinions and a whole slew of other daily life experiences. An Israeli mobile app could now empower people who stutter to rise above their often overlooked condition using the world’s first stuttering detection algorithm.
“Almost 80 percent of employers will not hire a stutterer, even for jobs that the stutterer doesn’t need to speak. Add to that, 60 percent of kids who stutter are bullied,” Yair Shapira, founder & CEO of NiNiSpeech, tells ISRAEL21c.
NiNiSpeech is a mobile health solution that helps people who stutter (PWS) maintain fluent speech, and allows speech-language pathologists (SLP) to monitor their clients’ fluency in everyday settings.
“The secret that most people don’t know is that almost all stutterers can speak fluently. When they’re alone in a room, they speak fluently. When they’re in the clinic, they speak fluently. The problem happens that when they’re in the real world, 85% lapse back into stuttering,” Shapira tells ISRAEL21c.
Shapira, a veteran of the Israeli high-tech field, has watched his 17-year-old son try new therapies and treatments for his stammer to no avail. The coincidence that he did his PhD on the effects of mental stress on human voice — before he knew his son would stutter — did not leave him indifferent.
Shapira recently left his executive position at DiViNetworks, and started NiNiSpeech together with Yoav Medan, who led IBM’s speech processing unit and served as CTO of InSightec, and Ofer Amir, who heads Tel Aviv University School of Communication Disorders.
“The industry of stuttering treatment is old-fashioned and non-technological,” says Shapira. “NiNiSpeech can revolutionize the whole industry of stuttering treatment, not just the treatment itself.”
The Haifa-based startup, launched in January, has already picked up a handful of innovation awards and has sparked interest from around the globe. Clinical trials are beginning in four countries.
A buzz in your hand
The World Health Organization defines stuttering as “a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds.”
When people stutter outside of therapy sessions, they often have no awareness that they’re hung up on a word. “The need for an out-of-clinic approach is crucial,” Shapira says.
That’s where NiNiSpeech comes in. The mobile solution, which will cost $50 to $100 monthly, provides the stutterer with immediate feedback on speech fluency via a buzz or vibration that operates in real-time and works in a variety of languages.
“The secret that most people don’t know is that almost all stutterers can speak fluently.”
The technology gives the stutterer a chance to monitor performance, improve fluency, achieve speech goals and gain rewards. The second stage of the solution, unique in the field, measures stuttering.
“When you’re on a diet, you weigh yourself. When you run or do fitness, you have a stopwatch so you know how well you’re doing, whether you’re progressing or not. In speech there’s no correlation between subjective experience of the stutterer and his real stutter,” says Shapira.
“So, a stutterer can work for one to three months and still won’t know if he progressed. This is a system that will let him know.”
Thirdly, NiNiSpeech – which is meant to be used together with speech therapy — gives SLPs critical real-time feedback from outside the clinic.
“Therapists have no clue how well their patients are doing because in the clinic you don’t stutter, in the same way you don’t eat cake at the dietician’s office,” says Shapira.
The NiNiSpeech solution gives therapists speech fluency metrics, allows them to view clients’ speech performance using a browser dashboard, and even listen to recordings of stutter clusters.
Clinical trials around the world
One percent of the population is affected by stuttering, says Shapira, including a handful of celebrities such as US Vice President Joe Biden, singer Marc Anthony and golfer Tiger Woods.
Shapira reports that people from across the globe have written in to welcome NiNiSpeech and have asked to partake in clinical trials.
The company, which is currently trying to raise capital, has received a grant from the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Economy but is mostly bootstrapped.
From the start, it has wowed the health innovation field – picking up first place in StarTAU & LeumiTech’s pitch night in February and first place in the Socialize15 startup contest, where it was selected by Forbes, PWS and OurCrowd as the leading startup offering technology solutions to social needs.
The company was recently chosen by Israel Brain Technologies to present at BrainTech2015, held on March 12th.
And, on May 18, NiNiSpeech won the $100,000 grand prize for first place in the Merage Institute Entrepreneurs’ Competition.
Now, NiNiSpeech is heading to clinical trials in the United States, China, Portugal and Israel.
The Chinese trials could make the greatest impact, says Shapira. “In China, it is considered a family shame if you stutter. And there are very few speech therapists in China.”
Assuming the trials are successful, Shapira says the NiNiSpeech application should be on the market by summer.
NiNiSpeech is named for Shapira’s son, Niv, whose stutter was especially prominent when he tried to say his name, “Ni-Ni-Niv.”
“NiNiSpeech can show the therapist what’s going on outside the clinic and it changes the way that the person who stutters can see his stutter,” says Shapira. “It can truly revolutionize the whole industry of stuttering treatment.”