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An Entrepreneurial Approach to Learning Language Grows From and Catalyzes Research

Published on
Jun 28, 2016

Autism researcher Timothy Roberts, PhD, has spent the last several months hard at work on an invention he explains in a funny way: “Our goal is to reduce the number of ‘cats,’” he said.

For most people, hearing the word “cat” automatically conjures up the image of a four-legged furry creature, he explained. But one model of why many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other conditions have difficulty with language processing, is that they perceive the subtle differences between pronunciations of the same word based on people’s accents, voice tones, and volumes. Potentially, their minds become overcrowded with too many different representations of the concept of “cat,” and this impairs their capacity to process spoken language in social settings, or to learn as many new words as they otherwise might.

Dr. Roberts, vice chair of research in Radiology at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying that concept in collaboration with David Embick, PhD, a professor of linguistics at Penn, for years. The pair recently began to accelerate that research idea toward real-world application in the SPRINT program of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI) at CHOP.

They hope their project, called “Language Aid,” will ultimately become a device that helps people increase their language processing in the way that hearing aids help people increase their ability to hear. For children who have difficulty with language processing, it consolidates their perceptions of different pronunciations of a word into a single, unified concept.

“We got to the idea that it would be useful to manipulate sounds of speech for children because we were able to demonstrate with static tones, that is when I prerecord different-sounding versions of the word ‘cat,’ I can play and receive different responses from different children, suggesting there are perceptual differences,” Dr. Roberts said, of their research using brain-imaging technology including magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Several years ago, he and Dr. Embick filed a patent for their idea of modifying speech to aid language acquisition, anticipating that a corporate partner might discover their patent filing and aid them with bringing their idea to market. Then, late last year, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Instead of waiting for a corporate partner, they became directly involved in the search for one by signing on to participate in OEI’s inaugural SPRINT program. They anticipated that OEI's expertise would prove instrumental in helping them to pursue commercialization opportunities that would otherwise not have been readily available to them.

“I had hoped that they would serve as a bridge to a company that could just make this thing for us, but that’s not really how it worked out,” Dr. Roberts said. “What it did was it turned us into more business-like people.”

The SPRINT program, which is designed to accelerate innovative ideas, concepts and projects to real-world applications, exposed the pair of researchers to a new, faster-paced way of conducting business. The program’s business and scientific advisory partners encouraged Dr. Roberts and Dr. Embick to do more hands-on development in strategizing and implementing their idea.

During their participation in SPRINT, the pair thought through and defined two major uses for their device: A classroom-based or conversation-based device would offer real-time language processing for older children to assist them in learning alongside their peers. Alternatively, a customizable device for infants and very young children could filter out distracting speech details to help to acquire language during those critical early years, with the possibility of reduced filtering over time as the children learn. The Language Aid device itself could take a variety of physical forms, depending on how and where it is used, such as a device resembling noise-canceling headphones, or a smartphone app used in conjunction with ordinary headphones.

Dr. Roberts and Dr. Embick also invested in hardware and software to begin prototyping the technology that would underlie such devices. The prototyping hardware looks like a 1980s hi-fi stereo with a screen attached, but beneath that plain exterior is a powerful tool that allows them to develop specialized algorithms that manipulate speech sounds in real time in a variety of different ways.

Working with this tool inspired new ideas for how to implement their Language Aid device in more customized ways — leading to new invention disclosures after their initial patent filing — and it has also reshaped their ongoing research in the lab, which previously used only prerecorded sounds. Now, in his ongoing research, Dr. Roberts can modify speech manipulation in real time based on readings from individual participants’ brains that show whether they distinguish differences between different-sounding versions of a word like “cat.” Then, like an optometrist sliding a different lens into place, he can modulate the sound of speech to sharpen the perceptual difference between speech sounds or to smooth it away.

“The OEI process is helping us close the gap between diagnostics and intervention,” Dr. Roberts said. “We were conducting very static style experiments with prerecorded stimuli, and now we are thinking in much more dynamic terms which lends itself to a more interventional philosophy. It’s opening up new opportunities and getting us closer to therapeutic interventions.”

Dr. Roberts shared some of this progress with Language Aid during the first-ever OEI Showcase event this spring. The event featured nine CHOP projects and teams that went through the initial round of the SPRINT program. Many of the ideas for these projects emerged from clinical needs and opportunities, such as a better IV-site protective device, and an app for easy dermatology consultations, while others, such as Language Aid, were direct outgrowths of the research advances achieved at CHOP in recent years. The second round of the SPRINT program is currently underway.

OEI is responsible for all entrepreneurial activities within CHOP and is accelerating CHOP's reputation as the leading center for entrepreneurship in pediatric medicine. This is accomplished by identifying potential spin-outs, developing strategic partnerships, pursuing potential commercialization opportunities, and developing early-stage ideas.

OEI welcomes all CHOP employees to discuss their unique and innovative healthcare-related ideas for new devices, software solutions, therapies, tools, mobile apps, and everything in between. Regardless of stage, department, or personnel, OEI wants to help CHOP employees bring these concepts to reality. OEI holds office hours every other Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when CHOP employees are welcome to walk in. For more information, contact Paul Dehel at dehelp [at]