smallTalk (formerly Thrive)
Like all companies, Thrive began with a problem they wanted to solve. Preterm infants have brain immaturities that cause abnormal sensory development. This is exacerbated by the amount of time they spend in the NICU and can cause long-term developmental challenges.
During the first year of a baby’s life their brain doubles in size. This growth period is critical for their brains to make foundational neural connections for language and speech development. The mother’s voice plays a key role in early neurological development. In fact, babies are wired to prefer the maternal voice and their brains react powerfully to it.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible for the mother to be in the NICU with the baby. When deprived of that maternal voice the baby’s brain wiring is interrupted and they can suffer from long-term developmental issues affecting speech and language outcomes, general motor skills, and even cognitive function.
The solution? Bring the mother’s voice into the NICU, especially when she can’t physically be there. This concept led Thrive to begin development on what they call the Dino Egg. The Dino Egg is an egg-shaped speaker system that sits inside the NICU incubator with the baby. The Dino Egg plays a recording of the mother’s voice talking or singing to the baby which triggers neurological connections that help them to recognize speech sounds and language. In certain cases, they will introduce a pacifier that contains a sensor that reacts to the baby’s natural sucking action by playing 10 seconds of the mothers’ recorded voice. This action and reaction create positive brain changes that can significantly improve speech and language outcomes.
Building the Product
Coming up with a purely cognitive solution and physically building a product are two entirely different challenges. That’s where AWH came into play. AWH is an elite team of digital product creators and data problem solvers in Dublin, Ohio. They have highly experienced experts in virtually every field and are passionate about building products with the power to change the world.
When AWH partnered with Thrive, they were faced with specific problems that needed to be solved. First, the physical device. It needed to follow strict safety and infection-control standards since it was going to be used in a sterile environment. The Dino Egg was designed with wireless charging and a silicone sleeve for safety and easy sanitation.
The next challenge was communication. It was necessary to facilitate communication between the pacifier, the Dino Egg, and a software app. A chip was added to measure the pound-force per square inch (PSI) of the baby’s sucking and was programmed to communicate and trigger the Dino Egg which would then play the mother’s voice for the allotted 10 seconds.
Finally, the data needed to be visually communicated within an app to the end user, in this case, doctors and nurses. The Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, at OSU, built physical prototypes so AWH, could begin coding the firmware necessary for this communication between all the physical pieces.
The preliminary results of this product have been successful and could have huge implications for the future of neonatal medical care. Not only does the Dino Egg stimulate brain development, but it lowers infant heart-rate and blood pressure as well causing more positive outcomes and happier, more relaxed babies. The benefits of a product like the Dino Egg does not stop at the NICU. A consumer version of this product is being developed to help babies make neural connections that support the learning of different languages. Research suggests that this product creates brain changes that may provide a cognitive advantage in the lives of affected infants.