A brother with autism led to this software startup
By: Will Thwaites
Photo by Will ThwaitesKaite Hench
Katie Hench's younger brother was diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. The diagnosis came late for how severe his characteristics were, but in rural Ohio where they grew up in the '90s, understanding of the disorder was limited. “I watched my parents struggle to find the right resources for him and struggle to help the school understand the needs that he had,” Hench says.
Parents and teachers struggle today, too, as the number of diagnoses of autistic children rises—1 of every 68 is diagnosed with some degree of autism. To help them, Hench took her expertise as a special-education teacher and applied it to a scalable pursuit: developing educational iPad apps for children with autism. Along with co-founders Christopher Flint and Lally Daley, Hench, 32, launched Infiniteach in 2013.
Though none of Infiniteach's founders knew how to write software, Hench's master's degree from the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business gave them the confidence they needed to dive into entrepreneurship. Using money from family and friends, they hired contract developers to do the initial coding. Since then, Infiniteach has garnered nearly 60,000 downloads of its first app, Skill Champ, which teaches 10 lessons, such as recognizing emotions and matching colors.
“We led with our passion,” says Hench, the startup's CEO.
What makes the company attractive to investors—it received $320,000 in a second round of funding in May—is that social impact and financial success are inseparable. This also is why Infiniteach was admitted into Impact Engine's 2014 class of startups and given a total of $40,000 by the accelerator.
“We look for companies where the social impact is baked into the product,” says Jessica Droste Yagan, CEO of Chicago-based Impact Engine. “The more they sell their product, the more they are creating affordable access to early-intervention autism resources.”
This year, Infiniteach doubled its headcount to six. It also moved into Literacenter, a new workspace in West Loop “focused exclusively on literacy organizations.” And this month, it will launch its second application, Infiniteach: Autism Core Skills. The application, which costs $100 a year, features activities, such as counting objects or matching shapes, that cover three areas of development: academic (reading and math), social and communication.
It will compete with digital products geared toward children with autism, such as VizZle from Monarch Teaching Technologies and Camp Discovery from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, as well software for a more general audience of early learners, such as Starfall from Starfall Education Foundation.
While Infiniteach: Autism Core Skills is customizable and Common Core-aligned, one of app's biggest assets is backend data collection. Parents, educators and therapists can track a student's progress, adjusting their approach accordingly.
As for Hench's brother, he's now 27, works at a day program and competes in Special Olympics sports. “He still faces challenges,” she says, “but overall is doing really well.”