With her three autistic children as her "classroom" for the past decade, Laura Kasbar learned the unique ways autistic kids learn. Now she is ready to launch a business whose video-based web platform will offer parents, schools and health therapists a new tool to harness that process of learning for a dramatically growing number of kids with autism.
Kasbar, a Spokane mother of six, including twins Max, who was severely autistic, and Anastasia, who was moderately so, says the new company, called GemIIni (named for the twins), will launch in the first quarter of 2012.
Funding for the launch has come from the Spokane Angel Alliance and its leader, Tom Simpson, and an unusual commitment by Spokane's Inland Imaging and its CEO.
It was 11 years ago, Kasbar recalls, "that I walked into the tv room and saw all my kids lined up on the couch watching television and I couldn't really tell which were the autistic ones."
"At that time, the conventional wisdom was that the television should be off if autistic kids were around. But that experience was the catalyst that made me realize I should be using video to teach them," she said.
So over the next decade, with the help of her oldest son, Nicolas, who was on the autism spectrum as Asburgers, she developed the method embodied in the video. Her special focus was to help Max, who doctors told her, when he was four, would never talk. She says he is now mainstreamed in school and excels in class without an aide.
Now 14 and featured on a GemIIni video, Max has recently tested as having a college-level reading ability, a dramatic advance from his original diagnosis of being a lifelong non-verbal autistic.
Kasbar says all three of her once-autistic children have now been removed from the autism diagnosis.
When Kasbar decided earlier this year she and her husband, Brian, were ready to launch the company, she was introduced to Simpson, who formerly guided a Spokane-based venture fund and now oversees the Spokane angel group.
Simpson set up a presentation for the start-up company a few months ago and wound up investing, as did some of the angel-group members. The presentation also drew the interest of Steve Duvoisin, Inland Imaging's CEO, who personally invested as well as bringing his company aboard.
"I briefed our 60 physicians after the presentation and their attitude was: 'You mean we can make an investment that will help a lot of kids and could also provide a return on the investment?'," Duvoisin recalled. "It was an easy decision, but I emphasize their focus was on how much help this would be to the kids."
The number of children on the autistic spectrum and who thus need the learning help amounts to one in 38, and is growing at an amazing 17 percent per year.
"Autism is a very genetic disorder with an environmental trigger," she explained. "There are things in the environment that are the triggers for those genetically predisposed to autism."
The range of the autism spectrum, she says, "suggests a range of susceptibility to the triggers."
Explaining the role of video as a learning tool for autistic kids, Kasbar noted that the autistic avoid looking directly at a speaker's face and thus lose much of the normal learning process of mimicking articulation in speech. But, she says, they are not uncomfortable looking on-screen personalities in the eye and watching their faces.
"I've spent thousands of hours working with families in Europe and in the U.S. over the past three years to perfect the method," she said.
She says Nicolas, now 24, and a salsa instructor, as well as a coach of sales teams, helped with actual interaction between the program and the child, adding:"It was very helpful having someone on the autism spectrum work to refine the program."
Materials prepared for the marketing of GemIIni indicate it will use a subscription-based model with online computer-based training platform that Kasbar hopes to sell to families with autistic children, but also school districts, independent therapists and treatment centers and health insurance companies.
The business model provides for a charge of $36 per student monthly, a fee that she says testing and surveys indicate is acceptable to parents, who would thus have a way to leverage home-time into therapy time at a reasonable cost.
She estimates the total special-needs market, including children with language-related disorders, at 7.8 million. Her target is to reach 50,000 families the first year.
"I expect that the company will become a leading provider of therapies for children with autism and other learning disorders," said Simpson, who is providing office space and consults with the Kasbars on marketing and development issues.