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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Magazine names Levy, 24, entrepreneur of the year

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Entrepreneur: “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.”

That’s a dictionary definition, but it seems to have had Alexander Levy specifically in mind.

The 24-year-old University of Toronto researcher was recently named Canada’s top entrepreneur by Profit magazine for designing an app to help improve the lives of people with communications disorders.

He did it with no small measure of initiative and risk.

Levy had been on the job in a university lab for less than a month when he decided to look into improving the communications gear lugged around by people who are unable to speak. In two weeks, working on his own, he came up with a prototype that he turned over to the head of the university’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab.

“It became a large group project” with a team of 15 working on it, Levy said. The product was eventually commercialized and Levy became CEO of MyVoice. The university took a minority shareholder position.

MyVoice offers a downloadable app that allows users to program their iPhones, iPads, Android devices and tablets with reproducible phrases that can be employed in everyday situations. It includes a “location awareness” feature that detects familiar locations and finds relevant words for the situation, such as “a large double-double please.”

So far, more than 9,500 people in 30 countries have downloaded the MyVoice app. It is particularly suitable for people with communications disorders arising from stroke, autism, aphasia or ALS.

MyVoice has only been in business for about nine months, but “it’s been quite a ride. The growth has been fantastic,” Levy said. Originally, he had expected to attract perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 users, but now he’s hoping to reach 10,000 by the end of the year.

Since MyVoice is a privately held company, Levy won’t reveal revenue or net income figures. The company’s revenue is based on subscription fees. Downloads are free for basic service. Users receive 15 simple words and phrases. They also gain the ability to add a limited number of their own custom words, phrases, pictures, books, and places through the MyVoice Web service.

For $29 per month, users get access to additional custom words, phrases, pictures, books, and places. These “plus” users also get unlimited access to all features and services, and can add and maintain as many custom items as they like.

The app is available at MyVoice’s website, along with simple tutorials, or at the Apple store.

Levy believes there is huge room to grow the service. MyVoice has only begun to scratch the surface of the potential clientele, while offering a low-cost alternative to existing solutions that are quite expensive.

Before MyVoice, families often plunked down thousands of dollars on heavy and bulky devices that were carried around in a shoulder bag or inconvenient binders with large numbers of flip cards.

“Families in crisis would go ahead and buy it, while the rate of abandonment was high,” Levy said. “We say, if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, go ahead and try it.”

Referring to Levy’s success with MyVoice, Ian Portsmith, editor of Profit magazine, said the young entrepreneur is not only helping clients, but also boosting the Canadian economy.

“He is starting to create jobs in Canada,” Portsmith told 680 News. “He now has 10 employees and we suspect that that’s going to be much higher in years to come.”

Levy said MyVoice still works closely with U of T, and it has ongoing co-operative relationships with Sunnybrook Health Science Centre, Toronto District School Board, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the Aphasia Institute.

Teachers are using it as a tool while working with children with special needs, such as autism or cognitive impairments, he said.

MyVoice has no plans at the moment to widen its reach by creating a traveller’s phrasebook.

“Our focus is on special needs and people with disabilities,” Levy said.

Levy has always been interested in social issues. A graduate of Northern Secondary School, he considered studying computer science and political science in university, but opted for the latter. “I was very active politically at the time and was interested in technology and political issues, like Internet censorship… privacy, copyright and net neutrality.”

Besides, he was pretty good at writing code all on his own. Largely self-taught, he is adept at Ruby on Rails, the coding language that forms the backbone for MyVoice. “It’s beautiful, like poetry,” he said.

His skill in computer coding led him to captain the university team that entered a U.S. Navy competition to create a small robot boat that could be used for firefighting or search and rescue.

Powered by a series of car batteries, the 250-pound boat was assembled in less than 43 days in his parents’ basement, at a total cost of $800 – his savings at the time. Tested in the backyard swimming pool, the device finished seventh overall, earning the team $1,000 in prize money, more than it cost to build.

“A military contractor came to us and asked us for our daily consulting rate,” Levy recalled. “We didn’t have one.”

Right now his focus is on MyVoice – improving the product and making it more accessible. There are 3.5 million North Americans with communications disorders and only 10 per cent use a speech aid, he said. These people suffer higher rates of depression and isolation than the general population while only 14 per cent of a sample of 5,300 users of communications aids had jobs.

MyVoice, he said, “can help people participate in society, get jobs and lead more fulfilling lives.”

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