A boy in a promotional video for NiniSpeech gets updates on his phone from a speech therapist. A boy in a promotional video for NiniSpeech gets updates on his phone from a speech therapist. A boy in a video for NiniSpeech gets updates on his phone from a speech therapist. (Photo: YouTube)

Father of stutterer invents app to help his son

With NiNiSpeech, it's like having a speech therapist with you at all times.

Yair Shapira’s son has stuttered since his first word. Now at age 17, Niv is “talented and confident,” his father described. The stuttering, however, still trips him up.

“In his 15 years of stuttering, we sent him to various therapies, where we also met dozens of other people who stutter,” Shapira told From The Grapevine. “Just like Niv, they all spoke fluently in the clinic but reported to stutter outside. Scientific research backs this – 84 percent of people who stutter experience relapse.”

The challenge? They receive constant feedback in the clinic from a speech therapist, who explains what they’re doing wrong (and when) and times they’re excelling, he said. “In the real world, they’re in a vacuum. They receive no external feedback, and their internal feedback loop is compromised.”

Seeking a solution for this disconnect, Shapira and his wife, who both have PhDs in biomedical engineering, came up with the concept to extend the feedback he receives in the clinic to the real world. After two years of research and development, they created NiNiSpeech, named after their son who often gets stuck on “Ni” when pronouncing his name.

The technology detects stuttering in real time on a mobile phone and notifies users via an alert on a bracelet, said Shapira, founder and CEO of the Israeli-based company. NiNiSpeech provides people who stutter with feedback and tips on their speech fluency (like “start softly”) and gives them goals to work toward based on their therapy program. Speech therapists also can monitor their patients from an online dashboard, gaining insight into their speech in daily life. They can even listen to recordings of the stuttering.

NiNiSpeech has already gained international attention. Selected as the most promising startup out of 500 entries, it recently won the Merage Institute’s Entrepreneurs’ Competition and the $100,000 award that came with it.

The technology is currently undergoing clinical trials in Israel and soon will expand to the United States, Europe and China. Speech therapists and people who stutter can reach out if they would like to participate. Assuming all goes well in the trials, Shapira anticipates NiNiSpeech’s widespread release toward the end of the year – a moment he’s eagerly awaiting.

Approximately 3 million people stutter in the United States. The condition cuts across all demographics and has impacted celebrities such as singer Ed Sheeran, and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Emily Blunt.

Stuttering often is a source of shame and embarrassment that prompts people to avoid speaking situations and refrain from discussing their condition, Shapira said. Eighty percent of parents say stuttering interferes with their children’s schoolwork, 75 percent say stuttering disrupts family and social life and 85 percent say their kids feel embarrassed about their stuttering. Many children have been bullied or teased because of it.

So close to NiNiSpeech’s widespread breakthrough, he acknowledges this is an emotional time for him. Like Shapira, another parent knows what it’s like to experience the roller coaster of feelings that with comes with helping her own child – and countless others. Debby Elnatan sought a solution for her son born with cerebral palsy to walk. After several failures, and with assistance from physical therapists and medical technology experts, she invented a standing and walking harness for children with motor impairment.

“I'm used to the harshness and cynicism of the high-tech and startup scenes,” said Shapira, who served in upper management at several tech firms in Israel and Europe. “Yet, when I share NiNiSpeech and my personal story, all walls collapse. I get so much encouragement from people you just would not expect. I also am exposed to heartbreaking stories and to people who are so desperate with their condition that I just can’t wait to be at the point where we can help them.”

Yair Shapira discussing NiNiSpeech at an event for social entrepreneurship in Israel hosted by Forbes.Yair Shapira discussing NiNiSpeech at an event for social entrepreneurship in Israel hosted by Forbes. (Photo: Courtesy NiNiSpeech)

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