Blabl: A Campus Startup Empowering All Voices

Most people have accidentally mispronounced a word or stuttered a bit in an intensely stressful interview. They momentarily experience the struggle to clearly and effortlessly communicate their thoughts, but this feeling is a constant reality for those who suffer from a speech pathology.

According to studies conducted by the National Institute of Health, nearly one in 12 children aged three to 17 suffer from some sort of speech pathology. Yet, according to the National Institute of Health, only 55 percent of the affected children receive any treatment. Why? Because speech therapy is expensive. A single session can cost over a hundred dollars and this cost is not covered by most insurance providers. Moreover, access to speech therapists is limited for children who live in rural neighborhoods. Without early therapeutic intervention, early signs of speech disorders can grow into larger problems later in life.

Dartmouth sophomore Ayan Agarwal had a speech disorder as a child, which fortunately was cured through early speech therapy. Now, as the founder of Blabl, a startup aiming to fix this problem, Agarwal wants to help those 45 percent who cannot afford or do not have access to professional treatment. Blabl is a speech therapist on-the-go, where children can use the mobile app to practice their speech with an avatar companion by telling it a story. The app will track the child’s speech performance over time and report progress to the parent or speech pathologist. It is free, is convenient and can be used at home.

Agarwal first came up with this idea in high school and even won a pitch contest during his senior year with it. When he arrived at Dartmouth, Agarwal set off to turn his idea into a reality. He pitched to the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE, formerly DEN) and won the Founder’s Grant to kickstart his venture. In the Spring of his freshmen year, he pitched and won a partnership with the Dartmouth Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab. By then, Blabl had become well-known within the Dartmouth entrepreneurial community and Agarwal gained access to mentors from our faculty, alumni and entrepreneurs.

The DALI Lab space matches entrepreneurs with student-led software development teams. As a freshman who lacked an in-depth technical background, designing and coding a speech therapy app was a daunting task for Agarwal. The DALI Lab connected him to a team who provided the technical skills to transform Blabl from a concept into a working app.

This development process, however, was anything but trivial. The first roadblock that the DALI team faced was the inability to use natural language processing (NLP) algorithms to understand what the user says. The original idea of the Blabl app envisioned children having conversations with the avatar, saying anything they wished. However, since NLP does not function as well when used in instances of speech impairments, the team had to pivot. They designed a ‘choose your own adventure’ mode, where the child can create ‘paths’ in their story by reading off the text for each choice. The second challenge came about during the testing phases for the app. With such a niche market, it was difficult for the DALI team to conduct user-testing and receive constructive feedback. The team is finding ways around this obstacle by reaching out for expertise from speech pathologists and visiting local children’s hospitals.

Agarwal’s partnership with the DALI lab began this term and will likely continue into the spring as the app requires a multi-stage development process.

Agarwal also partnered with the MCE, which offers resources on the business side of Blabl. The MCE offers “Startup Office Hours” for student entrepreneurs like Agarwal as well as a 3-week “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” course. The MCE’s other asset is its powerful network of successful alumni entrepreneurs. At events such as the weekly Student Circle, students have the opportunity to meet and connect with alumni who can provide valuable advice from their own experiences.

The entrepreneurship culture at Dartmouth certainly has room to grow. When Agarwal first stepped onto campus, he recounts how difficult it was “to know who to talk to about entrepreneurship.” The MCE is tucked away at 4 Currier Place in downtown Hanover and not many students know of the MCE or the DALI Lab and the resources they offer. Agarwal feels that if he had not come to Dartmouth already passionate about entrepreneurship, he would not have found the resources at MCE and DALI.

Ultimately, entrepreneurship is a way to apply one’s studies in any subject area to the real world. It is a passion, a career path and a way of life open to students of any major of study, and more and more, Dartmouth students are able to explore these possibilities. As a result, it is clear that Dartmouth can benefit from growth in its entrepreneurship program. Ideally, the MCE should not just be a resource for students who already have an idea but should expand to help every student discover entrepreneurship as a part of their liberal arts education.

But, there is light on the horizon. With $45 million in recent donations to the MCE, the entrepreneurship culture at Dartmouth has an exciting future. Both the DALI Lab and the MCE reached their highest memberships ever this year. Earlier this fall, ten new campus startups pitched themselves to the MCE Campus Ventures program, hiring almost 50 students, including many enthusiastic freshmen.

Whether a student has an idea or not, opportunities to become involved in startups have never been more plentiful. At the beginning of every term, students can apply through the MCE to intern at campus startups like Blabl. Students favoring the more technical side of innovation can apply each term to become a student developer or designer at DALI. Finally, students who want to pursue their own startups can pitch their ventures to MCE and DALI to receive grants and technical partnerships. The entrepreneurship culture at Dartmouth, led by bold visionaries like Agarwal, is taking off.