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Telehealth startup PenguinSmart enables at-home speech therapy for parents with language delayed kids

Aimee Wu 2021/07/06

Based in Silicon Valley, founded by Harvard and MIT alumni, PenguinSmart delivers family-centered rehab solutions for parents with language-delayed kids.

In the US, a CDC report showed that one in six children is diagnosed with developmental delay. Raising kids is already challenging, not to mention the mental and financial burden of bringing up children with physical, learning, or language difficulties. For those parents, weekly visits to speech-language therapists are part of their routine. Their kids participate in rehab therapies, mainly in groups and lasting only under 1 hour due to lack of workforce. Under the current therapy mode, most parents are isolated from the rehab process, and therapy is ineffective due to limited visits to the clinic.

Amy Kwok, co-founder, and CEO of PenguinSmart, strives to involve parents in their children’s rehab therapy through customized assessment and digitized guidance platform. After graduating med school at Peking University in 2009, Amy became a pediatrician in China. She saw countless patients with epileptic seizures lose their language ability due to insufficient rehab resources. Later in 2012, Amy pursued a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University.

Amy and Matthew Kwok co-found PenguinSmart. Initially, it was Matthew’s class project at MIT Sloan School of Management aims to provide solutions that would benefit “100 million people” worldwide. With that in mind, they established an intelligent language therapy platform for language-delayed kids.

Digitized one-stop service for home-based intervention

PenguinSmart currently offers speech and language therapy for families with early intervention needs, meaning kids from 6 months old to 6 years old. Most parents do not recognize development problems timely, as it is difficult to notice delay as a layman unless symptoms are apparent. It is heartbreaking for parents, as every child is precious and perfect in their eyes. No parent is prepared to deal with children with developmental delays. “It usually takes months or even years for parents to recognize and accept developmental delays, thus taking action and seeking language therapy is usually too late. So, PenguinSmart is building solutions to not only help parents in their child’s rehab needs, but also tools to find out and take action early. We are doing so with not only our self-evaluation tools, but also pushing the technology boundaries by analyzing sound and speech using machine learning to detect abnormality before it is audible by adults. We take empowering parents to make changes with their children seriously,” said Amy.

As some parents are uncertain whether their children are delayed in speech, PenguinSmart designs a set of questionnaires requiring parents to observe their children’s behavior. Also, videos of parent-child interaction are uploaded for further assessment, informing the panel of experts at PenguinSmart to make evaluations regarding the child’s development status. Experts can further customize rehab activities for parents to carry out at home based on digitized assessment tools.

Preliminary diagnoses made by pathologists are documented on PenguinSmart’s platform, allowing parents to check results immediately. Furthermore, 24/7 support and guidance functions are provided, such as online chat rooms with professionals. Tailor-made activity recommendations and demonstration videos are also seen on the PenguinSmart page—for example, oral-motor exercises such as training to chew with both sides of the mouth.

PenguinSmart sets out to help families regain the confidence to interact with their children. “Our product does not aim to disrupt the current language therapy mode, but rather adopt a more flexible and family-centered approach that serves a home-based intervention, empowering parents with the knowledge and courage, as well as harnessing the tools to perform rehab therapies with their children,” said Amy.

Penguin Smart's digital language therapy platform involves two parts: assessment and home-based intervention.

Flexible payment model directed for Chinese-speaking families

As speech and language therapy certification is relatively early in China, the team recruited language pathologists from Taiwan and the US, mainly offering consulting services to families in mainland China and Asian American families.

Currently, PenguinSmart rolled out multiple solutions for parents with different needs, with price ranging from tens to thousands of USD. Services include repeatable one-time evaluations to subscription-based quarterly premium tutoring memberships. The common theme is, parents gain access to high-quality speech therapy resources that help their children improve faster, and for a longer period of time by family-centered intervention methods.

Amid the pandemic, parents are spending more time at home with their little ones. Penguin Smart’s digital training videos and online consulting service is just what parents need. In Taiwan, PenguinSmart rolls out pro bono services that give Taiwanese parents a chance to access telehealth. With sponsorship from corporations, parents only need to make a lump-sum payment of 185USD (5199 TWD), and the following two months of service are provided free of charge.

Foraying into digital therapeutics

PenguinSmart has received widespread recognition, as well-intentioned products and strong tech background catch the attention of investors in MedTech. PenguinSmart was nominated as the Top 100 Healthcare Visionaries in 2021. In 2018, it received funding from Alchemist, a global accelerator based in San Francisco, rated the top accelerator by CB Insights in 2016.

Following the trend of digital therapeutics, PenguinSmart is striving towards making its service standardized while working closely with research institutes to demonstrate efficacy. Digital therapeutics is an evidence-based software intervention designed for hyper-specific patient populations like speech-delayed children or people with diabetes. For PenguinSmart to take its online rehab therapy to the next level, they would need to obtain FDA approval, which is precisely the team's goal as they prepare to raise another round of funding soon.

About the Author
Aimee Wu
Author >

Aimee Wu is a journalist and business news translator with a keen interest in sharing innovative technologies developed by Taiwan-based companies. She is pursuing a master’s degree in translation and interpretation at National Taiwan University.

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