rob laffan

It’s a shamrock-bedecked week, so it feels appropriate to use this space to give a shout out to Irishman Rob Laffan, who last year created Tippy Talk. And boy, does Laffan ever look like my relatives and ancestors. It’s such a specific look, it makes me beam with Irish pride to see m’boy do so well.

Rob Laffan was living in the city of Limerick, where my mother’s mother was born and raised, when he came up with the idea for a device that would help his kid – who, by the way, is about the same age as Dar. It’s what we in the community call an AAC device – assisted augmented communication device – but it has some advantages over the iPad/proloquo2go system we’re using now. Check this out:

What a difference a year makes. In 2014, Rob Laffan, who was in his final year of Automation and Control Engineering at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), came up with an idea for his final year project whereby he would tag images into texts using a program he had studied as part of one of his modules. That project was to become ‘Tippy Talk’, and would revolutionise the way he would communicate with his 5 year old daughter Sadie, who has completely nonverbal autism.

“I’ll never forget it. I was at the back door, my phone beeped and Sadie was up and she picked up my phone and she handed me my phone and I leaned down to Sadie and said “You tried to give Daddy a text message!” and the penny dropped.  At the same time I was studying the part of that module that was showing us how to build text messages that would notify engineers through the industrial system. So the idea came from Sadie.”

Tippy Talk works via a series of preloaded images with a person, object, desire or feeling on a touchscreen device. The user simply selects the message which they wish to articulate and a recipient, and a text is then sent directly to the recipient’s mobile phone. The technology is traditionally used for industrial purposes, such as controlling water pumps but Rob tested its unorthodox application on Sadie, to which she responded positively.

He had gone to his FYP supervisor with the idea, and remarked that they didn’t think the technology was ever used for this purpose before, so they did what any smart person would do – go straight to the patent lawyer.

“…We searched it, and looked into it more and more and it turns out it wasn’t done at all. So we set up an appointment with a patent solicitor and put it to him straight away, and he did a quick search and nothing was popping up on the search, so the patent file went through and we took it from there.”

But why a hardware device, why not just create an app? Rob notes that there is a need for a sole device dedicated for communication and communication only – “We bought Sadie iPads and tried a range of different apps, the problem is when you have and iPad or an app, kids will inevitably become distracted by other apps in the background”. Plus, there’s the issue of durability, and many won’t be able to afford replacing iPads and screens on a regular basis. After many rounds of testing, expanding, and debugging, Rob says the devices can take “a serious pounding”!

Now, to tell you the truth, we’re pretty happy with Dar’s iPad. He’s made remarkable strides with that and the proloquo2qo system. One measure of this is his school; at the start of the year, they kind of blew off his iPad as irrelevant to the work they were doing, but now they make a point of starting every day by getting it from his backpack. And he’s getting better with “I feel” icons lately. Not perfect, but better.

We don’t allow any other apps on his iPad. We don’t allow ourselves or Dar’s brother to play with it; it’s exclusively dedicated to Dar’s communication. Having said that, I can see room for improvement. I would love for him to text me his thoughts from anywhere. Let’s keep going in the article.

Although Tippy Talk has primarily been used and tested as an aid to those with autism, the technology can potentially be used to facilitate a wide range of verbal or communicative disabilities such as Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neuron Disease (MND), stroke, dementia amongst many others.

Over the summer months, Tippy Talk has received some well-deserved media coverage and Laffan received many accolades for his device, most notably the prestigious Engineers Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year award.  When asked if he anticipated the reaction he received, he laughed “No, hadn’t a clue. That’s the honest to God truth, I hadn’t a clue. It was just an idea I had for my Final Year Project… I was studying the Industrial Technology, and I had a need at home that needed to be met for Sadie so it was just a spur of the moment thing.”

The invention has seen a very welcome and profound impact on Sadie’s behaviour and communication, “The frustration levels have dropped dramatically. They’re not 100% gone, they’ll never be gone, it’s autism at the end of the day” and she’s begun to display a great sense of humour now that she’s comfortable with using Tippy Talk:

“You can often get times now, where you might get a text message saying, “Daddy, I feel sad.” But she’s not sad at all, she’s over on the couch jumping up and down! She’ll just be messing. So there’s little snippets of her coming through… [whispers] “She’s basically taking the piss!”

More rewarding is that now she can effectively convey her feelings more precisely which enables both him and his wife, Emily, to react according to her needs:

“But then you’ll get the real ones coming through, saying “Daddy I feel happy” or “Daddy, I feel like crying” or “Daddy, I feel sleepy” or if she’s sick, which is a huge one. Before, when she had no ways of communicating, if she had pain in a certain part of her body, she couldn’t let us know that she was sore, if her elbow was sore or if her head was sore; now with Tippy Talk, she can exactly pinpoint in the exact location of her body where the pain is or where the discomfort is and we can react then as well.”

Yeah, I would love that. The idea of taking the piss (this is good, where my relatives come from). The idea of less frustration. The idea of more “Dad, here’s where it hurts.” To really be with Dar, and not just a silent version of Dar.

Laffan hopes for Tippy Talk to be released to the Ireland and UK market in 2016 with the eventuality of producing it for all English-speaking markets, and to develop it in other languages from mid-2016 onwards. We can also expect more products from Sadiecom (named after “Her Majesty herself”) for the disability market, currently in development stages.

And the best business advice he’s received so far? “Get a team. If I think I can do this all on my own and grab this all on my own, then I’m barking up the wrong tree. It’s getting the right people to come on board and to help push this along as well, and just make it succeed.”

And some people wonder why Ireland has meshed so well with the European Union, while Britain is currently in Year 25 of will-they-or-won’t-they. Because we Irish have been through enough famines and enough political repression and enough family struggles to know that we’re always stronger as a team. Rugged individualism is grand, but not enough. Even Rob Laffan, who in another country might have tried to be Martin Shkreli, knows that. Let’s finish:

2015 has indeed been a whirlwind year for Rob Laffan. Sitting behind his desk, lined with a parade of awards and a hefty, newly-printed business plan dominating the space, I ask how all the attention has affected him:

“It’s letting other people who are in our position, who have children with a disability or nonverbal disability, to let people know that there’s somebody out there that’s after creating something and it’s working for them. And I’m proving it in and out all the time – I post pictures of Sadie using it and messages she sends out, she’s communicating her feelings which is the biggest one.”

For Rob, the definitive motivator for his ambition lies with his daughter, who is proving to him every day that returning back to college after so many years out of education was one of the best choices he’s ever made. If the progress that she has made using Tippy Talk can be replicated in households across the world, no doubt will the success of Sadiecom hit the stratosphere.

“Ultimately it’s just giving back the same joy that my family got from using it to other families in our situation.”

Hey Rob: Count on it. And go raibh maith agat.