Modernising speech and language therapy 

Rebecca Bright, winner of a Natwest everywoman award for women in business, talks to about starting up a language therapy business and juggling business and a six-month-old baby.

Rebecca Bright took her six-month-old son with her to the Natwest everywoman awards for women in business last week.  It was her son’s first experience of awards ceremonies and, starting as he might mean to go on, he soon found himself accepting the everywoman Iris award for female technology entrepreneurs with his mum.

Since he was born Rebecca has had to tailor her working life to his needs. She is a speech and language therapist who had worked in the NHS and set up her own practice working with people who had suffered strokes or head injuries. With her husband she set up Therapy Box, a business  producing apps for people with communications difficulties, in 2010.  “I could see a need and market for apps on ipods [at the time ipads weren’t around] and phones from people with communication difficulties,” says Rebecca. “My clients were using old bespoke communication aids which cost the NHS between £5,000 and £12,000 per person. I showed one of these to a client who had no speech. She typed ‘f*** off’ into her mobile phone. She was in her 20s and needed something that would help give her a voice. The traditional communication aid did not fit her needs. It was not the kind of thing for tech-savvy, image conscious people. She really got me thinking that what was available was not working for her.”

Rebecca says young people who are born with a disability often get to their teenage years and don’t want to use the traditional communication aid they have been using. “They don’t want something that makes them seem different from their friends or makes them seem more disabled. Using ipods and smart phones are more part of their normal lives,” she says.

At the time the world of apps was relatively new. Rebecca’s husband worked for Carphone Warehouse and had a good grasp of the telecommunications business. However, neither of them were coders so they had to find someone who could create the apps they had designed.

The two funded the start-up themselves and found a developer in India, where Rebecca’s husband is originally from. She admits finding the right developers and using an offshore team was challenging. The couple found their original developers online and went to India to meet them. “It was a bumpy road to find the right people,” says Rebecca. “They are not sitting next to us so we needed someone who could work easily with us from a distance. In the last 18 months, however, things have worked well and there is a good team of 15 staff in India whose skills sets work well for the company."

Not gimmicks

Initially the apps were sold to schools and speech therapists, but it was difficult to convince them that they were not just gimmicks and that they could not only save them money but offer extras such as gps. Interest built through word of mouth, including parents who asked their speech therapists about them. “It’s much easier now that apps are more the norm. When we launched we were the first app of its kind in the UK, but there are a huge amount now which keeps us on our toes,” says Rebecca.

The pace of technology is fast so, after years when communication aids had not changed much, there is now a need for constant updates.

Originally the business was launched from Rebecca and her husband’s home in Chiswick, but by 2011 they had moved into nearby offices. “Things grew steadily. For a long time we were control freaks and thought we could do everything ourselves. When we took on other people, though, we found that the business grew more because we could do more marketing and go to events in the UK and US and get our products in front of more people,” she says.

The company now has 10 staff and its main customers are the NHS and special schools, but its apps can be downloaded on iTunes. They have developed different apps over time and now have ones that cater for a range of different speech difficulties, from those caused by strokes to those caused by Down’s Syndrome and autism.

The apps are already produced in six different languages and Rebecca says the business plans to keep growing, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia. They are bringing out a new app before Christmas for children who need symbols to put together their messages. They can set up a page, for instance, for what they want to eat. They can also tag different areas with their smart phone or ipad's gps so when they go to school they have the symbols which are relevant to school. The app can be totally personalised, for instance, it can be adjusted according to a child’s age and they can add photos of their family and friends.

Rebecca says having her son while the business was growing meant she was unable to have much time when she could switch off from work. She had six weeks when she was “not doing much”, but after that she has been going into the office for meetings and working round her baby. She says she is lucky that her husband is her business partner as he can look after the baby when she is in a meeting. In the long run, though, she thinks running a business will mean she can be more flexible around her son’s needs. Eventually, though, she admits that she will need childcare support. “It’s quite challenging to work out what is best for everyone, but we are trying to find the right balance,” she says.

The Natwest everywoman ceremony was a good chance to talk to other female entrepreneurs who have been in similar situations. Rebecca's award, sponsored by IBM,  is for female technology entrepreneurs who provide real solutions in the world today and are instrumental in building a smarter planet. She says it is great recognition for all the hard work and a good way to let people know about the business. She adds:  “I spoke to so many other women who had been in similar situations to mine at the ceremony. It was good to get their perspective and to feel normal as well as getting a pat on the back for what we have achieved.”


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