Irish app giving a voice to those who cannot speak

Innovation awards finalist TippyTalk: Rob Laffan designed product to help autistic daughter

Rob Laffan is father to a seven-year-old girl named Sadie who has autism and is non-verbal. It was this that inspired the creation of TippyTalk, a family run tech-company specialising in communication solutions for people living with a verbal disorder.

“I went back to college in 2012 and did a degree in robotics and automation,” says Laffan. “In the meantime we noticed our daughter wasn’t developing in the way a typical two-year-old would.

“Everything pointed towards autism, so I made it my business to create something with the technology that I was learning in college that would serve a purpose to suit her.”

Since launching in late July 2016, TippyTalk has been downloaded tens of thousands of times in more than 70 countries worldwide.

The product is an enhanced communication platform, which combines picture-based communication with personalised text messaging. It allows the parent to build a unique identity of the user based on sex, age, social interest, personal needs, wants and desires.

“It combines bespoke images that allows a person with verbal difficulties to indicate a desire, need or feeling to anyone they want,” says Laffan. “It lets you translate an image into a text message that goes to the parent or caregiver’s telephone.

“The non-verbal individual selects who they want to contact first; select a category associated with what they want to communicate; and thirdly pick an image associated with that category.

“For example, my daughter would pick a picture of daddy first. Then she picks the food icon. Thirdly, she picks a picture of an orange. I would then get a text message saying ‘Hi Daddy, I’m hungry and I’d like an orange’.”

TippyTalk won a couple of national student awards, and some Enterprise Ireland accolades. "At that point I decided to pursue it as a business and see if there was anything in it," continues Laffan.

“The feedback we got was very positive, so we decided to take the concept of the device and turn it into an app that was easily deliverable to the public.”

Teething problems

Laffan says he brought the product to the US market first, as people there are more forgiving when it comes to teething problems.

“We realised we had an American product on our hands rather than an Irish or English one,” he says. “We knew that our market was in the US predominantly. Americans are that bit more forgiving with new technology if there are flaws and errors along the way.

“We knew our product wasn’t 100 per cent right at the beginning, but we had to test the market. We didn’t realise we were going to viral so fast, but the Americans were much more forgiving in terms of the small technicalities at the start.

“So, we went about sourcing a venture capitalist that would be in our area. We got in touch with a company called Arc Capital in Denver, Colorado. From that day to this, we’ve grown exponentially in the US.

"We were very lucky when we launched our app. About a month later, we managed to go viral. Every couple of weeks, we have different spin-offs and our videos go viral across Facebook, Twitter, and different social media platforms. That gives us a boost with the public."

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Laffan however. Before establishing TippyTalk, he was a pharmaceutical sales representative until 2010. “I was in that position for about nine years but lost my job in the economic downturn,” he says. “I was two years unemployed. At that stage, I made a decision to go back to higher education.”

In terms of the outlook for the company: “Version two will be designed for special needs schools and institutes,” he says. “We’re doing our beta trials at a school in Co Kerry.”

Laffan is fully trained and experienced in non-verbal communication for children as well as adults and is certified by a range of programmes.

He has a Bachelor's degree in engineering, specifically related to automation and robotic systems from the Limerick Institute of Technology, and has won a number of awards in recent years.

He was the overall winner of the Enterprise Ireland student entrepreneur of the year award in 2015, as well as the winner of the Engineers Ireland Innovation student of the year 2015. He also received the International Society of Automation individual innovation award in 2014.