By Katie Mills Giorgio

A long-time fascination with speech and communication disorders led University of Iowa graduate Ryan Ries to form Translacare, an innovative Iowa City startup dedicated to helping those who can’t communicate.

Translacare’s first product, Iconotouch, is a web-based software solution that allows speech therapists, elders and site administrators to turn any consumer electronic device with Internet access into a specialized, customizable communication device and memory aid for those dealing with speech loss from a neurological disorder, such as dementia, ALS, stroke or a traumatic brain injury.

Users can select words and pictures to build messages that communicate their thoughts and feelings through a customizable vocabulary set and create personalized profiles to assist in treating speech, language or memory deficiencies.

What sets Iconotouch apart from its competitors is that it is not an app that needs to be downloaded to a specific device.

“From talking with people in the field, we know that often the devices used for therapy are floating around between buildings and therapists,” said Mr. Ries. “So to be able to access this program on any device is very helpful. Plus they can have multiple users set up within the program. We want to take away any barriers for therapists.”

Mr. Ries also noted that being web-based helps immensely when selling the product as they are able to train new users remotely.

“We really think this model gives us an advantage,” he said. “It is easy for the lives of the people in facilities using the product and it’s also easier from the business side.”

Learning the field

The journey to Translacare began when Mr. Ries first came to study at the University of Iowa with the intention of going to medical school and becoming a neuroscientist.

But as he got further into his studies of neurobiology and linguistics he saw an opportunity to make a difference in the field in a new and technologically advanced way.

Mr. Ries, only in his mid-twenties, began to think about speech therapy technology for the ever-growing elderly population.

“There’s a lot out there for kids, but I found there was hardly anything for older adults,” he recalled.

Most of what Mr. Ries found were device-based programs, requiring users to own or purchase a personal computer, laptop or tablet, which he thought might be a financial challenge for those who need the services.

Mr. Ries embarked on an effort to create a web-based platform that could be used by speech therapists while working with elderly individuals dealing with speech loss.

“What I learned in my studies is that there is such a varied range of symptoms for each subset of elderly patients with neurological disorders,” he said.

He knew he would have to come up with a platform, geared toward therapists, that could serve a variety of needs.

Inspired by friend who had just launched his own business, Mr. Ries officially incorporated Translacare in 2011. He was able to raise his first startup funding through a business plan competition at the University of Iowa.

Mr. Ries, who just graduated in May of this year with his B.S. in Neurobiology and a B.A. in Linguistics after returning to school as a non-traditional student at the age of 25, said he has learned much throughout the process of launching the business.

One of his first steps was hiring developers to create Iconotouch, as he did not have coding experience himself. He also reached out to clinicians to build a team of medical experts he could rely on for feedback and insight.

“I really took all of 2012 to do business planning and gather information,” he said.

Iconotouch went into beta testing in the summer of 2013. It was during this time that the company entered into an agreement with an organization called It’s Never 2 Late (iN2L), which provides technology solutions for skilled nursing facilities. Translacare worked with iN2L to release Iconotouch commercially in March 2014.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Ries struck a partnership with a large therapy contract provider in Indiana. Creative Health Solutions (CHS) began using Iconotouch in all its facilities.

“The cool thing about working with CHS is that within four to five months of using our product they were interested in investing in our company. I’m proud that our first equity investor is our first customer.”

While Translacare is currently only working directly with elderly care facilities, Mr. Ries said the hope is to eventually offer the product direct to seniors who want to use the technology in their own home.

Today, the Translacare team remains small – just Mr. Ries serving as president and founder, another business partner and two software developers. They have used the help of interns throughout the process and rely on their scientific advisory team as well.

Mr. Ries said he is very proud of where the company is today but he is not yet satisfied.

“I think now that we are making money, it is easy to think it is just a matter of time before it all works out,” he said. “But for me, I start talking about the next round of updates right after we roll out the latest round.”