Reno, Bay Area teens launch company to help children with special needs
RENO, Nev. — Many high school students spend their summers working a full- or part-time job.
Priyanka Senthil spent hers helping launch a social enterprise.
In July, Senthil, a senior at Davidson Academy in Reno, and four Bay Area-based high school students formed AUesome, a startup that makes customizable at-home therapy kits that help children with special needs improve communication and motor skills.
Senthil and AUesome co-founders — Isabella He, Andrew Kim, Anshul Gupta and Arnav Gurudatt — started their social enterprise through LaunchX, a summer entrepreneurship program for high school students worldwide.
Out of 63 teams formed, AUesome placed second overall in the program, with recognition for best pitches in feasibility, marketing, financial and traction.
The startup officially registered as an LLC in the state of Nevada on Aug. 29.
The inspiration for startup, Senthil said, stemmed from the quintet’s individual experiences working with children with special needs.
Senthil, for example, volunteers at the Reno-based nonprofit Northern Nevada RAVE Family Foundation, which provides respite to families caring for children with special needs. Other AUesome founders volunteer at Bay Area-based nonprofit Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN).
“Learning about autism and researching autism has been a personal passion for all of us,” Senthil said in a video interview with the NNBW. “And having worked with these children, we saw a real need for at-home therapy and for it to be more accessible to parents.”
Through firsthand experience and research, the AUesome founders identified that continuous at-home therapy for children with special needs is not just helpful — it’s crucial.
At-home therapists, however, average more than $125 per session, an expense many parents simply cannot afford, especially now amid the financial stressors of the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s more, COVID forced many organizations that parents depended on — like aforementioned Northern Nevada RAVE and FCSN — to temporarily pause programming during the public health crisis.
“That caused a lot of these families to lose structure, and structured activities is really, really important to children with special needs,” AUesome co-founder Isabella He told the NNBW in a video interview. “Especially autism, because they need that repetitive reinforcement that they lose without classroom interaction and all these in-person programs.
“So, AUesome also aims to address that. We have daily schedules of activities they can do and the activities repeat and also get harder. So, it’s a progression that guides the child through daily activities to keep them engaged during this pandemic.”
Notably, AUesome received guidance of their own when designing their minimum viable product. Throughout the process, the team got input from experts from Duke, Stanford, Harvard, Brown, and the University of Nevada, Reno, in addition to various therapists and nonprofit organizations.
“Some of the professors we reached out to are now our advisors,” added He.
AUesome’s physical kits — which are accompanied by an interactive online app that gives children the option to learn digitally, and helps parents track their child’s progress — are priced at $15. The cost, according to AUesome, adds an estimated $1,500 in value to their customers each year by saving one hour per week of at-home therapy.
Some of the activities in the kit teach children common facial expressions and emotional responses to everyday scenarios. Others focus on intricate movements that can be applied to everyday tasks such as tying shoelaces, using pencils, and holding utensils, according to Senthil and Ha. The co-founders plan to take turns manufacturing the kits and shipping them out.
Within one week of launching their product in late July, AUesome delivered eight kits to customers across three states, including Nevada, California and Maine.
One of those was Reno resident Balakrupa Ram, whose 4-year-old son has ADHD and is on the autism spectrum.
“He is trying to engage with the kit for a longer period of time,” Ram said in an email to the NNBW. “Increasing the attention span of kids with ADHD is a big challenge and this kit has definitely played a small role in this. Also, understanding different emotions has been very hard for him and the flash cards have helped him recognize a couple of different emotions.
“My other big takeaway would be the fine motor skills. Most of the products help to improve them and I am very impressed with the quality of the products chosen.”
Through a GoFundMe campaign, AUesome raised $1,060 in six days, according to Senthil and Ha. The student-led startup is planning to move into a Kickstarter campaign, with plans of using the funds to develop their app and improve their kits.
Though the innovative high school students are now tasked with juggling the demands of schoolwork and startup work, Senthil said they welcome the challenge.
“It’s not a hardship for us because it’s something that we want to do and we’re really passionate about it,” Senthil said. “I think, personally, the thing that I like most about entrepreneurship is I can work toward something that I’m passionate about and be at the forefront of the change that I want to see happen.
“And so, being able to actually see a solution or putting together a solution that I can actually see does help families is very rewarding.”
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