Why This Female Founder Launched A Startup To Give A Voice To Millions Of Voiceless Individuals

#PEAlumnae, #PEIntensive17, female founders, health startup, healthcare, Monday Motivation, product, product testing, technology

Mondays can be rough—sometimes we need a little motivation to get the week started. Our #MondayMotivation blog series brings you tips and life hacks from Project Entrepreneur Alumnae—female founders who applied to the Project Entrepreneur Venture Competition to attend our two-day PE Intensive and join a nationwide community of hundreds of women entrepreneurs. Get to know more about the PE Community and #beinspired by how these women motivate themselves each Monday to tackle the week ahead.

Nearly 40 million people in the United States live at home with a disability, and 1 billion people are living with disabilities worldwide (that’s 1 in 7 people). Many people with disabilities have trouble communicating their thoughts, feelings and desires because they don’t have access to assistive devices. PE Intensive 2017 Alumna Mary Elizabeth McCulloch is working to change that with her startup, Project Vive.

At Project Vive, Mary Elizabeth and her team are dedicated to making speech assistive devices available to everyone. We spoke to Mary about the passion that fuels her work, the difficulties she’s overcome as a tech hardware founder, and her advice for female entrepreneurs just getting their companies off the ground.

What inspired you to start your business?

I was an exchange student to Ecuador in high school. I started volunteering in an orphanage for children and adults with disabilities. Many of them were not able to speak due to cerebral palsy and other motor disabilities. I started asking them yes and no questions and figuring out their voluntary response like eye blinking or twitch a finger. They all had stories to tell, things they liked, and things they disliked but they didn’t have reliably communication method. I started looking for low-cost devices that could help them speak and found only expensive ones in the U.S. I started prototyping a speech generating device(Voz Box) and started Project Vive as a tech company structured as a social enterprise. Project Vive’s mission is to empower people with disabilities by giving a voice through accessible technology.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

The biggest challenge I have faced is knowing what was a prototype and what was the device we could bring to market. There were many time when I would think “this is it!” just to have people try it out and realize it was missing to much to survive in the field. However after five iterations and hundreds of hours of user-centered design, these challenges have led to the product that we will be launching June 2019.

What’s been the greatest reward?

The greatest reward has been giving a voice and seeing the difference we are making. We gave a speech generating device to a 15 yr-old a few months ago when he didn’t have a reliable one for years. Watching him use it and show off has been awesome!

What changes would you most like to see in your industry, and how are you working to make those changes happen?

In the assistive technology industry, I would like to see more open design. This includes leveraging existing(consumer) standards that are readily available, making products repairable, and providing datasheets. So much technology is very expensive and not adaptability which prevents people with disabilities from using it. Project Vive has created and continues to develop open source speech generating solutions while working closely with people with disabilities in low-income communities and resource constrained settings. We’ve concentrated on embedded systems hardware, expandability to all sensor inputs, wearables, DIY mounting solutions, VESA mount compatibility, and integration into low-cost consumer tablets.

Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?

Our Voz Box users, both past, current, and future!

Can you provide a few updates on what’s new with your business or what you’ve accomplished since you attended the PE Intensive in April 2017?

We won the Cisco 2017 Global Problem Solver Challenge and with it 100k in non-diluted funding. We also received support from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) IShow and a sponsorship from Altium, a world leader in PCB design software.

We also completed the NSF I-Corps customer discovery program at Penn State Hershey Medical last fall in collaboration with the ALS Clinic.

Can you describe a problem you solved in your business that other early-stage founders face and tell us how you went about solving this problem? How can other early-stage founders repeat your success?

Validating the usefulness of the Voz Box. Getting you MVP out there as soon as possible solves this problem. Starting the learning process early and doing iterative design will give you the data you need to show the effectiveness and make a better product.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?

Start with the problem. Don’t fall in love the product you created. Once you put your minimal viable product in people’s hands you will more than likely realize it doesn’t work how you thought. Because I saw a problem and was determined to fix it, pivoting and developing new products and ditching others didn’t feel like failure but just a step closer to solving the problem.

For more motivation from our PE Alumnae, check out our interview with Fara Alexander, CEO and Co-Founder of ReturnRunners, a personal service that helps people return unwanted items to retailers. Fara attended the PE Intensive in 2017, and we had a chance to chat with her recently about how she’s been building ReturnRunners since attending the Intensive, why it’s difficult to please both consumers and businesses with the same product, and how she manages to avoid distractions and stay focused on the core activities that keep her business going forward.