On February 21st, investors and product developers came together to discuss opportunities for addressing the autism community’s unmet needs
Highlights from Autism Speaks's first annual Autism Investment Conference, Feb 21, 2013. Learn more at http://aic.autismspeaks.org
On Thursday, Autism Speaks hosted the world’s first conference focused entirely on investment and product development in the field of autism services and therapies. The one-day conference brought together more than a hundred attendees, including investors, business executives, entrepreneurs and product developers.
“The conference’s speakers were the who’s who of new product developers in the new and rapidly growing autism space,” said conference organizer Rob Ring, Ph.D. Dr. Ring is Autism Speaks vice president for translational research and also heads Autism Speaks new not-for-profit affiliate DELSIA (Delivering Scientific Innovation to Autism).
Spotlighted products included a vest that eases autism symptoms with deep pressure, cognitive interference games and iPad applications that help families manage the complexities of medical and behavioral care for individuals with autism. Featured companies included a high-tech software tester that has built a workforce around the special abilities of high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum.
“We are in the business of helping families who face the challenges of autism every day. We can’t do it alone and we can’t wait for the government,” said Autism Speaks President Liz Feld, expressing her appreciation of the many potential partnerships represented at the conference.
Autism Speaks co-founder Bob Wright opened the conference with a pre-recorded welcome. (See video below.) “Right now, we are working beyond the science to deliver the science,” he said. “We’re helping to broker interactions between investors and entrepreneurs – through meetings like these – in order to ensure new product delivery.”
Autism Speaks Co-Founder Bob Wright welcomes conference attendees:
Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., added: "Our science mission at Autism Speaks is not to simply generate new knowledge but to translate that knowledge into more effective diagnostic and treatment methods. The investment community is a critical partner in this process, and this inaugural autism investment conference was designed to educate investors about the diversity and scale of opportunities. We hope that this will ultimately speed new products into the clinic and community to make a real difference in people’s lives." (View a video of Dr. Dawson's introductory remarks here.)
The day’s four sessions introduced a broad range of opportunities for the development of products and services to address unmet healthcare, education and service needs in the autism community. In particular, the sessions focused on four vital areas.
Therapeutic technologies – including medicines and medical devices – can improve the quality of life for people with autism by relieving the disorder’s symptoms or associated medical conditions. To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only two medicines for treating autism.
Seaside Therapeutics co-founder and chief executive officer Randall Carpenter, M.D., discussed the company’s advancements in developing medicines that address autism’s core symptoms. In combination with behavioral therapy, these medicines hold hope for not just easing, but reversing autism’s core symptoms, he said. (Read more about Autism Speaks collaboration with Seaside Therapeutics here.)
Brian Mullen, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Therapeutic Systems, discussed the development of a pressurized vest that could become the first evidence-based, insurance-reimbursable therapeutic device for autism. The “Vayu Vest” is already on the market, and the company is gathering performance results to demonstrate its effectiveness as an FDA-approved, durable medical device.
Eddie Martucci, Ph.D., co-founder of Akili Interactive Labs, described how the company is tapping the results of neuroscience research to develop mobile and gaming technology into therapeutic devices that “heal not harm.” Akili is partnering with healthcare providers, health insurers and even pharmaceutical companies to bring such technologies to market.
Assistive technologies improve the function and quality of life of individuals with disabilities. “Within the autism community, the individuals we need to help the most are typically those with whom we can communicate the least,” said Northeastern University Behavioral Scientist Matthew Goodwin, Ph.D. Web-based assistive technologies can also help families recognize early signs and symptoms of autism and, after diagnosis, manage the complexities of treatment.
Strategic Initiatives SAP Labs is developing mobile applications that help parents collect and coordinate information related to treatments and education. Potentially, the technology can also link a child’s education and treatment goals with updates on medical advances and practical advice, said Faheen Ahmed, SAP’s vice president and the father of a child with fragile X syndrome. Autism is one of the syndrome’s hallmarks.
More than a thousand different autism “apps” can be downloaded from iTunes. Yet few have the backing of research on their effectiveness, said Rob Tedesco, co-founder of Handhold Adaptive. Handhold Adaptive’s iPrompts app is an exception, he said. It’s also one of iTunes most popular medical apps. It provides visual prompts to help individuals with autism attend to tasks and sequences. Handheld’s other autism-relevant technology apps include speechPrompts and Story Maker. The company has provided the apps to independent researchers for evaluation of their effectiveness. It has also received research and development grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Tedesco said.
Advocating for her child with autism spurred Gailynn Gluth to found WYNSUM ARTS. The company’s i.AM Search is an adaptive search platform that allows users to customize autism app selections based on gender, age, interests and skills. Using the i.Am “score,” parents and providers can select the most appropriate resources for a specific child, she explained.
Diagnostic and treatment-guiding technology
Coupled with effective treatment, early detection of autism can profoundly improve outcomes. Recent discoveries of autism-associated genes and other biomarkers have set the stage for diagnosis before obvious symptoms emerge. These discoveries are also furthering the development of individualized treatments.
Bernard Courtieu, chief executive officer of IntegraGen, described the annual $75 million U.S. market for the ARISk® Risk Assessment Test, a genetic autism risk screen for young children in families already affected by autism. The test scans for 65 genetic markers associated with increased autism risk. IntegraGen is also developing a screening test for children in families with no history of autism diagnosis. The ARISk test was developed, in part, using Autism Speaks Autism Genome Resource Exchange (AGRE). To date, Autism Speaks has invested more than $25 million in resources to support research leading to development of diagnostics and treatments.
Stanley Lapidus, founder and chief executive officer of SynapDx Corp., described his company’s development of a blood test that may make it possible to diagnose autism at earlier ages. Each year, behavioral screening flags nearly a half million American children as possibly affected by autism. For this reason, Lapidus projects a $1 billion market for the blood test his company is developing. He also revealed the news that LabCorp had just invested $2 million in the test’s development. Such an objective test would be welcomed by health insurers and might increase access to the behavioral interventions that many states require insurers to cover.
Rosalind Picard, Sc.D., chief scientist of Affectiva, described development of “Q Sensor” technology, which tracks the emotional escalation that often precedes an outburst. The goal is to help parents and teachers intervene before such outbursts occur. The device might also help researchers gauge the effectiveness of behavioral interventions. Dr. Picard also described early evidence that the Q Sensor technology might aid in detecting seizure activity. Many persons with autism are also affected by epilepsy.
Services and supports
Services and supports help people with autism lead lives of dignity, purpose and independence. These products range from educational and behavioral services in early childhood to transition and vocational support in adolescence and adulthood.
"While we look forward to the day when better interventions can ease autism’s disabling symptoms, we still have an immense need to provide supports and services throughout the lifespan,” said Peter Bell, Autism Speaks executive vice president of programs and services. “Doing so will help people with autism to make significant contributions to society.” Services now in development range from new early childhood education services and behavioral therapies to transition and vocational support for adolescents and adults.
David Cappellucci, co-founder and chief executive officer of TeachTown, described how his company’s education software can promote language learning, social and communication skills and emotional development with individualized reporting and tracking. TeachTown’s motivational products are designed to improve critical thinking and decision making. Such a software approach is especially promising for helping students in rural communities and other underserved communities, he said.
Daniel Etra, co-founder and chief executive officer of Rethink Autism, introduced Web-based educational software for autism assessment, curriculum planning and results tracking. The company’s products are already covered by state-based Medicaid programs. The company also has a U.S. Department of Defense contract to provide services for families at military bases around the world.
Recognizing the autism asset
Among the day’s standout presentations, Steven Perricone, founder and chief executive officer of Semperical, called attention to the assets that individuals with autism can provide to the business community. Semperical, a software testing and quality assurance company, employs over 300 high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum – accounting for 80 percent of its workforce. The autism community is rich in individuals with tremendous skills and focus in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Perricone reminded the audience. Yet around 85 percent of adults with autism remain unemployed or underemployed. Perricone called on a “societal shift” toward a view of the autism community as a “high-asset population,” rather than a population to be “accommodated.” Although nearly one third of Semperical’s employees have advanced degrees, Perricone noted, 40 percent never completed high school. Thanks to an “autism rich” workforce, Sempiercal’s revenues have grown to $50 million.
"While we look forward to the day when better interventions can ease autism’s disabling symptoms, we still have an immense need to provide supports and services throughout the lifespan,” he said. “People with autism can make significant contributions to society if given the proper supports and access to services.” Bell and his panel went on to illustrate several financially viable avenues for addressing currently unmet needs. They ranged from educational and behavioral services in early childhood to transition and vocational support in adolescence and adulthood. The panel discussion also highlighted the challenges that individuals and their families face in paying for such services.
“This conference was about connecting investors with a community of entrepreneurs, developers and small companies working to convert scientific breakthroughs into products that have the ability to transform the lives of individuals with autism,” said Dr. Ring. “By connecting the innovators with the investors, we are ensuring that scientific discoveries are being translated into the products and services that can transform lives.” Autism Speaks has made a commitment to hold the investment conference annually.
Also see Investments that Support the Autism Community, a guest blog post by panelist Gailynn Gluth, founder and CEO of Wynsum Arts.