Founder Feature: Shona D’Arcy, CEO of Kids Speech Labs

Kids Speech Labs Shona

In our latest Founder Feature, we’ve partnered with the Super Connect for Good Competition powered by Empact Ventures and Hays. We are talking to the CEO of Kids Speech Labs, Shona D’Arcy, who was announced as the Super Connect for Good competition’s regional winner for the Republic of Ireland

The Kids Speech Labs application enables parents and guardians to provide data and audio examples of their child’s speech, which are then reviewed by qualified speech therapists. They aim to make it easier for people to understand if their child’s speech and language are on track for their age.

Could you tell us about your company and what you’re striving to achieve?

KSL is a digital health company looking to disrupt how children’s speech and language development is managed. For many reasons this industry has a near total reliance on costly face to face appointments for managing speech and language assessment and therapy. However, the increasing demand on services cannot be met through existing practices. Children are spending too long on waiting for speech and language services and the critical window of early identifiable and intervention is being missed again and again. We are using technology to deliver new approaches to screening, assessing and treating speech and language development in order to reach more children and improve outcomes for all stakeholders. 

What made you decide to take on the challenge of founding your business?

I was an academic for years and worked on several digital health projects from ideation and prototyping to clinical validation. I gained a great deal of experience in how to go about solving problems in the healthcare system. My research background was in speech recognition technology and I always wanted to bring these 2 areas of expertise together. I read a book called Range by David Epstein who discusses how people with a ‘range’ of different expertise are often solve really big problems better than those who have been super focused on one particular subject for year. I wanted to see what problems I could solve bringing my range of experience. After doing my research the biggest gap in I could find that was in the range of my experience was in the child’s speech and language development space. From parents who are trying to understand if their child’s speech is on track to a healthcare system that is failing to meet the demand for services with existing resources. 

What is the core technology driving your start-up’s product/service? 

First and foremost, we’re a data company, this industry is still very much paper and pen based and it’s missing out on valuable insights that can drive improvements through understanding the demands of all stakeholders. We are collecting significant amounts of data from parents, childnre and therapists and are developing AI models that can inform the assessment of speech and language skills in line with clinical standards.

We are also using speech recognition technology to develop new approaches to assessing speech and language skills. We are not trying to replicate a speech therapist (unlike our competitors) rather we are developing new assessment models that incorporate AI driven decision making that are suitable for large scale remote deployment and automated assessment.

What was it like taking part in the Super Connect for Good Competition? Have the super connections before and after helped you? 

The Super Connect for Good competition was a great experience, the level of competition was really high so it was a real honour to be selected as the regional winner. The competition only got stiffer at the national stage. The event itself was really well run, particularly with the last-minute shift online. Our mission was really well received by the audience, and I made several connections through the event itself. The scope of connections the organisation has is really impressive from business supports to, in my case, links into healthcare organisations. We have several meetings scheduled for January that have the potential to help us grow our market significantly. For anyone considering participating in this competition in the future, I would definitely recommend it.

What keeps you up at night/what are you paranoid about?

Competition, the health tech industry is moving so fast, you never know what other companies are working on in the background. As a deep tech company our lead times for building disruptive solutions can be longer than the ever-changing technology environment allows. We have very few direct competitors, but this doesn’t mean another company isn’t developing solutions in a way we haven’t thought of. I’m always looking at solutions in similar industries to anticipate how they could be applied to what we’re trying to achieve. 

What is your plan to adapt if your industry is completely disrupted?

Our industry has just been disrupted! The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online solutions way ahead of time. Our busines model initially focused largely on the direct to parent market as this is where the largest unmet need exists but also the lead time for digital transformation withing the healthcare system is always significant, particularly when trying to change existing practices. 

However, we still speak to speech therapists whenever we can and noticed a significant change in attitude to remote therapy and technology in general. We are in the process of piloting an innovative patient/therapist portal to address some of the limitations that speech therapists are finding in this new environment they find themselves in. 

How many hours of sleep do you get and what is your morning/evening routine?

I get 7-8 hours of sleep a day, sleep is probably the most important contributors to how effective I am in a day. I used to cycle to the office everyday which was a great wake up routine and I certainly miss that now that we’re all home bound. I’ve replaced this with a mini workout in my garage, preferably in the morning to boost myself before starting work. 

Do you see this as UK centric or will you conquer the world by going global?

The UK and Ireland are our initial market, the problems in the industries are very well defined and there are many organisations attempting to improve the rate at which children with delay are identified and so we have a clear vision of who are customers, partners will be over the next few years. However, the problem of children not getting the help they need when they need it is global. Many emerging nations have very capacity for speech and language development. Each new language we cover will require localization our data driven approach means we can replicate our platform relatively efficiently. Our goal is to be the international standard in benchmarking children’s speech and language skills to ensure no child misses out on the resources they need to develop effective communication skills. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to budding innovators taking the same journey?

Make sure you have a couple of supportive startup friends around the same stage as you. I participated in a couple of early stage accelerators at the start of my journey and am still in contact with the few that are still going. The ability to ask stupid questions and get friendly people to test your applications is invaluable. 

Also don’t embark on this adventure unless you’re prepared for lots of rejection, remember it’s not personal it’s just part of the journey.  

Find out more about Kids Speech Labs here.

Bekki Barnes

With 5 years’ experience in marketing, Bekki has knowledge in both B2B and B2C marketing. Bekki has worked with a wide range of brands, including local and national organisations.