The U.S. economy may still be catching its breath from the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that innovative entrepreneurs won’t come all the way from Israel to seek opportunity. And one such Israeli company, TikTalk, is setting up shop in Baltimore while helping American students with their speech.
“The company is creating a tool for SLPs (speech language pathologists) to help and take care of kids with speech and language problem[s],” said Nir Gamliel, TikTalk’s chief business officer.
According to Gamliel, the tools available to SLPs have not been updated in a considerable span of time.
“This market is a market, which is, I would say, old school, [a] market which is using tools which have [been in use] since back in the ‘40s and the ‘50s [and] didn’t progress much, still using different cards, games, words … Not even technology, I would say, but very old school tools to work with,” he said.
In a bid to shake things up, TikTalk is working to bring the latest technologies to this market, Gamliel explained. Under TikTalk’s plan, a child in need of speech therapy receives a specially configured tablet computer that is able to access the TikTalk system. At the same time, the child’s SLP would have access to a secure, cloud-based TikTalk portal where they can prepare a personalized therapy protocol that is tailored to that specific child’s needs.
Upon activating the TikTalk application, Gamliel said, the child is offered a few different choices of video games to play. While playing the game, every few seconds or minutes, the game will freeze and the program will ask the child to say a specific word in order to continue playing. Depending on the child’s response, the program might commend them with “good job” or encourage them to “try again,” at which point the child resumes playing until it is time to practice the next word.
“This way, while the kid is playing, he’s actually practicing the therapy protocol which the SLP prepared for him,” Gamliel said.
The SLP is then able to review the child’s work and have video sessions with them, if necessary.
Children who participate in the program range from age 3 to 14, Gamliel said, though the majority tend to be around the ages of 5 to 7.
The program is made possible through both artificial intelligence and machine learning, Gamliel explained, “because everything which the kid is saying is compared to hundreds of other recordings out there on the cloud, and it is measured against a huge database, and this is how the kid is getting the correctional feedback from the system while he continue[s] playing.” As the database grows larger, Gamliel continued, the system is able to train and improve itself.
A Hebrew language version of the system is currently available, Gamliel said, and the company is currently targeting the U.S. market, with an introductory pilot running in Pikesville and Cleveland to refine the system. Some 17 SLPs are currently participating in that pilot along with approximately 65 children, he said. He expects the pilot to conclude in October, and afterward, they plan to expand the system’s usage, potentially into the U.S. school system, while beginning to charge for it. They are currently exploring a few different business models, which include potentially leasing tablets to schools or charging private SLPs for each session with a student.
TikTalk was founded by its CEO Raphael Nassi, Gamliel said. While it was originally registered in 2015, he said that the major push for raising funds didn’t come until 2017 or 2018.
While TikTalk’s main offices are in Israel, it has also been awarded the use of office space at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. This resulted from Nassi being declared one of the top three performing entrepreneurs in a 2019 binational accelerator program organized by the Maryland Israel Development Center.
MIDC Executive Director Barry Bogage said that TikTalk did well in the program because “given that they were so early stage, they just seemed to be closer to success, with the way they thought out their business model, how far along they were in their development of their technology.” The fact that TikTalk was interested in operating in Maryland was also an important factor, Bogage said.
While the pandemic has limited the degree to which TikTalk’s Baltimore offices have been physically used, Gamliel said he does occasionally use it. He expressed hope that the pandemic would be over soon, at which point he would like to use the offices for meetings and seminars with SLPs.
Aside from himself, Gamliel said that TikTalk currently has two additional U.S.-based employees, one in Bethesda and the other in Cleveland. They’re also planning to hire a new Maryland-based SLP to help them expand, run seminars and offer technical support.
And what’s with TikTalk having a similar-sounding name to a popular Chinese social media company?
Gamliel said that TikTalk has no relationship with TikTok. When his company was founded in 2015, not many had heard of the Chinese company, and the similarity in their names is entirely coincidental.
“We may decide to change the name at some point in the future, but right now we don’t see that it is causing us problems,” Gamliel said.