How TinyEYE moved online speech therapy from the big “no” to the worldly “yes”

Jackie Gill - February 18, 2020 TinyEye connects students to speech therapists to help overcome language disorders through online therapy sessions
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Imagine you’re Christopher, and you desperately need speech therapy.

You’re a young student living in a remote Northern Saskatchewan community. You have a severe stutter that makes it hard to get a word out. And although you have a speech therapist, she’s only able to visit once in a while – when the roads are good.

Just to get there, she has to drive for hours. Because the drive is so long, your case might be the only one she deals with that day. But without her help, how will you interact with the people – and the world – around you?

“My heart aches for Christopher,” says Marnee Brick. Brick was Christopher’s speech therapist, based hundreds of kilometers away in Saskatoon. “If only I could be there with him, I could change his life. But he lived so far away.”

Christopher was one of many remote cases that Brick had in her schedule. It’s cases like his that prompted her and her brother Greg Sutton to create TinyEYE Therapy Services, a custom-built online therapy platform that connects speech therapists to students who need support via video – meaning students like Christopher get the help they need, no matter where in the world they live.

That was 15 years ago, in 2005. Since then, the sibling co-founders and their team have delivered over half a million therapy sessions to more than 20,000 kids, in five languages and 12 countries.  

“In doing so, we help schools stay in compliance and deliver what they’re accountable for,” says Sutton. “But much more importantly, we help the children achieve their best life to build smiles, mend spirits and engage them in their lives.”

So why did starting the business almost cost Brick her professional license?

Video calling before video calling

Back in 2005, the internet looked very different. YouTube had just launched its service and posted its first video: Me at the zoo. Skype was audio-only, though major instant messaging clients like MSN Messenger and AIM enabled webcam chats just a couple of years earlier.

Heck, the first iPhone hadn’t even been released. In fact, Apple was just introducing the iPod Video.

“Online video was Star Trek. That was something you saw in movies but not in reality, and certainly not in a classroom or in a school setting.”

– Greg Sutton, CEO and co-founder of TinyEYE

At the time, Brick was a practicing speech therapist who was increasingly fed up with the amount of time she spent traveling back and forth from far-away schools to deliver a service that children badly needed. “She spent half her days driving, only a small part of her day seeing kids and then all her evenings doing paperwork. It just seemed incredibly inefficient,” Sutton says.

Sutton was embedded in the technology world as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Advanced Technology Association. With a background in music and writing – he worked as a travel writer for a while, jetting around Southeast Asia, Australia and South America – he fell in love with the way technology enabled creativity.

“Every day I met with tech entrepreneurs and helped them solve their problems,” he says. So when Brick talked about her problems, Sutton had one question: “Why don’t you just beam in?”

“I could be with Christopher every day, and I could help him thrive in his life. As a therapist, that’s what my heart wanted to do.”

– Marnee Brick, President and co-founder of TinyEYE

“Then I could be with Christopher every day, and I could help him thrive in his life. As a therapist, that’s what my heart wanted to do,” Brick says.

The technology didn’t exist yet, though. “Online video was Star Trek. That was something you saw in movies but not in reality, and certainly not in a classroom or in a school setting,” Sutton says. So he learned to code in the evenings and nights. Eventually, he put together a beta version of TinyEYE.

“We had to build everything from the ground up. We ramshackled stuff together with duct tape and bubble gum,” he adds. But it worked.

“The regulations said you could not treat persons with communication disorders through electronic media.”

– Greg Sutton

“We had just a circle on the screen. I moved the circle on my side and it moved on her side. It was like, Eureka! We’ve connected two computers and have movement on a screen,” says Sutton. “The video was horribly delayed and pixelated, but we know we can improve it and figure it out.”

There was just one more thing keeping Brick from Christopher, he says – it came from the province of Saskatchewan itself. “The regulations said you could not treat persons with communication disorders through electronic media.”

READ: There’s a shortage of speech therapists in schools. There’s a shortage of fun during recess, too. Here’s how one startup is bringing play back to playtime.

Changing hearts and changing minds

Brick and Sutton’s grandfather had a saying: “If no one’s standing up and trying to resist what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing anything worthwhile.”

Back in the 1980s, when the regulations in Saskatchewan were written, treating someone by electronic media meant recording on a VHS tape and shipping it in the mail, says Sutton. They didn’t reflect changes in the format or delivery of electronic media – even if those changes made effective therapy more accessible for children, and saved time and travel costs.

When Sutton and Brick started a business that went against the rules, “They threatened to pull her license and prevent her from working in the profession that she had spent the entirety of her life getting credentialed and training towards,” says Sutton. Never mind both had remortgaged their homes, maxed out their credit cards and drained their retirement savings to keep the business afloat.

“That fire in our belly made it so we could not quit because why we were doing it was bigger than us.”

– Marnee Brick

But Brick and Sutton took this as an opportunity to dig deep and do a gut-check. Was this fight worth the fight? Who else would stand up for those kids? What would it take to win?

“I was so scared. Then I got mad. Then I got focused. We’re going to see this through because the stakes are too high,” Brick remembers. “That fire in our belly made it so we could not quit because why we were doing it was bigger than us.”

The pair went to major speech therapy conferences and started pitching their idea throughout North America. Outside provincial borders, they found communities ready to believe and build partnerships.

They even teamed up with Kent State University for a study on the effectiveness of telehealth services, released in 2011. Though it was a pilot study, the numbers were staggering: 84 per cent of kids who received online therapy didn’t just achieve their goals; they mastered those goals. In the traditional therapy group? Just 47 per cent reached the same level of mastery.

“Being under that scrutiny made us so good at what we did.”

– Greg Sutton

Meanwhile, Sutton and Brick continued to work with communities in Northern Saskatchewan. They built their platform alongside ministers of health and education. Eventually, through persistence, “We changed government regulations. We changed criteria for what’s considered a high-quality therapy experience,” says Brick.

Today, the province is their longest-running customer, and the siblings are grateful for the journey. In fact, TinyEYE credits much of its success to that initial resistance. “Being under that scrutiny made us so good at what we did,” says Sutton.

“We had to make it the best of the best,” Brick adds. “We honour the beginning.”

READ: Want more startups helping students around the world? Uche Onuora from Hitch shares how his son’s Autism diagnosis inspired him to make education more accessible in Africa

Helping kids communicate without fear

At the beginning of each TinyEYE session, your dedicated speech therapist greets you with a warm hello.

Then, you’ll talk about your goals together, and the progress you’ve made. “[Students are] the CEO of this goal,” says Brick. For example, if a student struggles with the “L” sound, “They’re going to be the expert on how to make it.”

Next, you’ll practice with your therapist on the platform using custom-built games designed to help kids reinforce learning while tapping into their environment or interests. If they’re into hockey, there’s a game where they take shots on a virtual net to knock over cards with L-words on them. If they live on an island, kids might play a game where they fish to receive cards with L-words for each catch they get. There are about 150 games like this to choose from.

“We’re giving them the skills so that they can access learning, participate in it, and feel really great about how they’re doing.”

– Marnee Brick

“Then it’s the wrap-up,” Brick says. “We let [the students] pick the word of the week. Maybe it’s ‘lucky.’ Then their job is to go teach their teacher how they say the sound, ‘lucky.’” A virtual high-five, and it’s time to sign off.

The end goal is to help students like Christopher express themselves through their voice – or devices that give them a voice – whether they’re working on sounds, building vocabulary or overcoming a stutter.

“We help children to communicate effectively without fear,” Brick says. “We’re giving them the skills so that they can access learning, participate in it and feel really great about how they’re doing.”

And the TinyEYE team feels great about what they’re doing too, she adds.

“Every day, they wake up to make the world better for children they’ll never meet. That just says something about their hearts and their commitment,” she says.

“It’s for Christopher and other therapists like me who wanted to make a difference for the Christophers.”

DRAFT CARD

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  • Name: TinyEYE Therapy Services
  • Solution: Student-focused online speech and occupational therapy for schools
  • Owners: Marnee Brick and Greg Sutton
  • Employees: 50+
  • Headquarters: Saskatoon, Sask.
  • Founded: 2005
  • Contact: [email protected]
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