Posted September 21st, 2015 by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah

Talking stickers: U of T Engineering alumni enter finals for Hult Prize

  • U of T alumni demonstrating their

    Team Atollo includes two U of T Engineering alumni, as well as two U of T neuroscience PhD alumni. The group met in Rotman's MBA program (Photo: Roberta Baker).

With a week left before Hult Prize finals at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting, U of T’s Team Attollo is gaining momentum, finding partners in India and Africa and picking up interest from educational organizations.

The innovation driving all the excitement? That’s “talking stickers”, the system created by the team of engineers and neuroscientists to improve literacy for impoverished children around the world.

One of only six teams left from more than 20,000 entrants in the world’s largest student competition on global challenges, the social entrepreneurs developed a handheld scanner called ollo which uses stickers with QR codes to bring words to life through songs, nursery rhymes and short stories. It’s been attracting media attention locally and in developing countries around the world where they’ve been testing the product.

Listen to the CBC Radio story on Metro Morning.

If they win the finals on Sept. 26, at an event hosted by former President Bill Clinton in New York City, the team gets $1 million in seed capital funds that will go toward building the social startup and putting affordable Attollo devices into the market.

For team members Aisha Bukhari (ElecE 0T8), Peter Cinat (CompE 0T2) and Rotman MBA graduates Lak Chinta and Jamie Austin, it’s been a long road since winning the U of T competition back in December. Between them, the group has three engineering degrees, two PhDs in neuroscience and four MBAs, but they’ve had to learn new skills like how to make a pithy business pitch and how to capture investor and media interest.

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Talking Stickers by Atollo from Janelle & Steve Miller on Vimeo.

In March, they won the Hult regional rounds in Dubai. They’ve all left their full time jobs to focus on the startup, going through several incarnations of their initial idea, absorbing advice from profs and other social entrepreneurs and tweaking their product.

But it’s been worth it for the group. With this year’s competition focused on early childhood development in the urban slum, team members say they feel their Attollo device has a real shot at reducing illiteracy in the developing world.

“Studies show that underprivileged children are exposed to 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 compared to their more privileged counterparts – this has a big impact on their vocabulary,” said Attollo team member Austin.

“By the time these children reach school, this gap widens to the point where they struggle to succeed in school and then later in life. We traveled to India and Kenya, and we found that the concept of the word gap was also prevalent. These children struggle with language and vocabulary development. The good news is that parents can solve the word gap by talking, reading and singing more to their children every day.”

But parents sometimes struggle with illiteracy, too. That’s where the Attollo device comes in.

Easily scalable due to its low cost, the device uses stickers to prompt playback of pre-recorded educational audio, helping to overcome parents’ own challenges with literacy. Parents can record new vocabulary, short sentences or pages from a book in their own voice. They can use the device to complete interactive activities with their child. Or, when a parent is busy working, it can be left in the hands of children to scan stickers and learn from the playback.

As part of the Hult competition, the team has been testing Talking Stickers this summer at schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Hyderabad, India and Mombasa, Kenya. They’ve worked with such NGOs as the Aga Khan Foundation and Pratham, the largest early childhood development NGO in India.

Thanks to those trial runs, Pratham, Aga Khan and Right to Play have signed letters of intent, expressing interest in obtaining several hundred devices and stickers. UNICEF has also expressed interest.

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(Photo: Eugene Grichko – Rotman School of Management)

 

U of T Faculty of Information Associate Professor Matt Ratto helped with product development. And along the way, staff and faculty from U of T’s Rotman School of Management and across U of T rallied to help Team Attollo, with everything from feedback on pitches and presentations to financial support.

“Students and faculty at U of T know that the challenges we confront as a global community are more intertwined, complex, and social than ever before,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “Team Attollo represents the kind of critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and ethical and social reasoning that the university encourages and supports in its social entrepreneurs.”

Thanks to Rotman School of Management Professor Dilip Soman, the group got a face-to-face meeting with government officials in the state of Telengana. Those officials also want to partner with the group to purchase the devices and stickers for government-run early childhood development initiatives.

“My role was simply to talk about the team’s product and potential to the Canadian Trade Office in Delhi and to request their help,” Soman said. “The Canadian Trade Commissioner in New Delhi, Ivy Lerner Frank, has been a great supporter of our work at the India Innovation Institute, and she saw this as a classic example of the kind of innovative social enterprise ideas that need to be supported. Ivy and her office facilitated meetings between the team, and the Telangana government, resulting in the memorandum.”

Team members also participated in an incubator at the Hult International Business School in Boston, receiving mentoring and strategic planning advice.

For this next week, the group is focused on last-minute preparations ahead of the finals on Sept. 26.

After that, they’re working with Autodesk Research, who crafted the device, and Professor David Johns (ECE), who is helping the group make the device more compact and affordable. They’re also considering secondary markets for Talking Stickers such as collaborations with consumer packaged goods and medical/pharmaceutical companies to help people around the world who can’t read to comprehend instructions on drugs and other goods.

Attollo members say they’re excited to work with U of T’s Dr. Stanley Zlotkin and the Centre for Global Child Health at SickKids Hospital in Toronto to use the Talking Stickers concept to help families understand how to use Sprinkles – a UNICEF child nutrition product. Stickers can be placed on Sprinkles sachets to provide audio instructions on proper product usage when scanned – in any dialect or language around the world.

It’s the work with Pratham that has them the most excited. They see the potential of putting reading devices into the hands of children who can’t afford to go to school.

“The way we’re going to distribute this into our target area is by finding a like-minded partner who shares our mission of impacting underprivileged children in communities we need to serve,” Cinat said. “We think we’ve found such a partner in Pratham. Their mission is to teach and support children who have been left behind. Pratham serves 1 million children under the age of 6 today in India, operating in 21 out of 29 states.”

“Still, there’s over 20 million people not served with any form of early childhood development. That’s the market that together with Pratham we are going to target.”

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 This story originally appeared on U of T News.