A growing customer base, and some six-figure grants, help a Eugene app maker grow
In 2016, Laura Dahill’s son, Ethan, faced a challenge daunting for any 11-year-old: sixth grade.
But Dahill — whose son experiences autism — worried about his transition from elementary school, where students stay in one classroom with one teacher, to middle school, where students rotate through several classrooms and teachers each day.
A Eugene startup app developer provided the solution. And the federal government has taken notice of its potential, recently awarding the firm nearly $700,000 to develop new apps.
Dahill met that year with Tom Keating, the founder of Cognitopia, which creates life management apps for children and adults with cognitive disabilities.
Through Cognitopia, Ethan, now 13 and an eighth-grader at Cal Young Middle School, began using the company’s apps, such as MyLife and Goal Guide. Through a desktop computer, a smartphone or an iPad like the one the school gives to each student, Ethan can track his daily schedule and homework assignments, as well as simple reminders to put on his glasses or get certain books out of his backpack.
“It just dawned on me at that meeting how much the Cognitopia tools could help Ethan with the transition,” Dahill said. “We programmed his middle school schedule into the Cognitopia tool. It gave him reminders like, ‘You need to go here now,’ when one class ended. And he was able to be more independent and not so reliant on an adult talking to him. It really helped him increase his independence.”
Keating earned his doctorate in special education and rehabilitation from the University of Oregon in the early 1990s. And from the early 1980s until 2012, he cared for his brother James, who experienced moderate autism and intellectual disabilities.
But Keating also built up a small business called Assistech Systems, designed to compete for research and development grants to build Web-based tools for people with cognitive disabilities, such as autism. With a background in grant writing, Keating continued raising money to develop what would become the company’s first app, Picture Planner, in 2009.
“Things like personal organization, these are areas that are challenging for a lot of people, with or without disabilities,” Keating said. But especially for people with issues like high-functioning autism, balancing schoolwork or a job with chores like cooking dinner and cleaning up around the house can feel overwhelming.
“It’s really grounded in the real experiences of people with cognitive disabilities, and the caregivers and teachers who support them,” he said.
Picture Planner eventually led to the Goal Guide and MyLife apps that Ethan uses, as well as apps called Routines, Do and ScanDo! But Keating still was struggling to grow his business into a full-scale commercial operation.
So Keating in 2014 enrolled in the ID8 Pre-accelerator, launched by the then-new local business development nonprofit FertiLab Thinkubator. Through the program, which provides entrepreneurial education and early mentorship programs to local companies to prepare them for entrance into accelerator programs, Keating met Matt Fanelli, who earned his master’s degree in business administration from the UO that year and would end up becoming chief operating officer for Cognitopia, the commercial end of Keating’s Assistech company.
The pair then entered the Eugene Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN, mentorship and business development program in 2015. RAIN seeks to help launch and grow innovative companies with the goal of creating well-paid jobs in the southern Willamette Valley.
Keating called those programs essential to helping Cognitopia take steps toward becoming a true commercial enterprise. He and Fanelli graduated from the 12-week program and began testing new software out of leased building space in the Atrium Building on West 10th Avenue in downtown Eugene.
Several valuable opportunities have since grown out of that work. The same year Keating entered the ID8 Pre-accelerator, a new Eugene nonprofit called Smart Living, Learning & Earning with Autism, began leasing properties around town and providing housing and social assistance to college students and adults with high-functioning autism.
The 19 people enrolled in the program today use Cognitopia’s Goal Guide, ScanDO! and MyLife apps to navigate their coursework, jobs, volunteer work and daily tasks, SLLEA founder and Executive Director Sherry Sandreth said.
“It makes a big difference in their lives,” Sandreth said. “Probably the most important thing to me is that it builds their self-esteem, and they don’t feel so different. They can feel really good about their accomplishments, because they’re able to do it on their own.”
Institutions across the country have taken notice, too. Last year the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, began using Cognitopia apps for its students.
“We use it to really track goals, and what we call a ‘person-centered plan,’” said K. Ryan Wennderling, associate director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. “We look at academics, career development, independent living, self-determination and campus and community engagement.”
Twenty-five UNLV students are using Cognitopia’s apps this year. Local school districts and schools as far away as New York City also are using it, Keating said, and through online research and word-of-mouth, several thousand people have downloaded the Cognitopia apps nationwide.
Meanwhile, Cognitopia announced last month that it had been awarded two grants totaling nearly $700,000 from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research to develop new apps to improve users’ social interaction and employment prospects.
“More than moving us in a new direction, it lets us just really augment what we’re already doing, and really round out the suite of tools we’re trying to create,” Keating said.
But his quest to commercialize the Cognitopia business continues.
“We’ve been offering (the apps) for free up to the present time, because we’ve been able to do that under the auspices of grant funding,” Keating said. “But we’re keenly aware that’s not a viable business model for being able to stay in this work. We’re determined not to have to rely on grant funding. Right now we’re developing a pricing model that will let us do that. We’re not looking for pilot testing relationships anymore. We’re looking to develop customers.”
Under the proposed business plan, users with cognitive disabilities and their families could continue using the apps for free. But schools and organizations that provide care services for several people with cognitive issues would pay $25 per person per month to use the collection of apps.
Achieving a steady revenue stream for Cognitopia could take several more years, Keating said. He hopes to add to his team of five full-time employees and a half-dozen contractors and consultants, and build up a research and development budget that will allow the company to keep improving its products.
“There are hundreds of programs across the country that serve students with development disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism,” Keating said. “They see a real need for these kinds of support programs.”