Cleveland Startup Aims to improve Babies’ Brain Development

How Thrive Neuromedical’s smallTalk tech uses language to lay a foundation for learning

Dean Koch, Chief Executive Officer, smallTalk

For adults, a long stretch of silence in a busy world might be exactly what the doctor ordered. But for a baby, silence is merely a wasted opportunity to help their rapidly growing brains develop even more efficiently. That’s why at Cleveland-based Thrive Neuromedical, they’re working to give babies more exposure to language, even if it’s coming from a speaker and not a person. The company has developed tech that speaks to babies when they aren’t hearing their parents’ voices, and you may be surprised at the impact it could have on their development.

“In the neonatal intensive care unit, babies do not have the exposure to their mother’s voice like babies that go home with mom do, so we bring the maternal voice into the NICU environment,” said co-founder Dean Koch. “And then for babies at home, we bring the neurological benefit of interaction with more than one language during that window of opportunity. We’ve created an interactive, technology-driven device that allows the baby to kind of control and interact with a foreign language for the purpose of brain development and language development.”

The benefits of smallTalk could stretch over a child’s entire life. By specifically targeting the neural pathways opened by learning a new language, the system lays the foundation for lifelong learning in areas that stretch far beyond the language being spoken to them in their infancy. And the system doesn’t just talk to the baby, which Koch said would be filtered out as white noise. Instead, it uses the sucking of a pacifier to “reward” the baby with language, activating important parts of the brain.

“SmallTalk sensitizes the brain to a different language, which pays off decades later,” said Koch. “Whether you learn it in your youth or want to learn it later, you’ll already have the pathways in your brain that allow you to hear that language and verbalize those sounds. But more importantly, the brain is designed for more than one language during infancy because we come from tribal culture. So when you’re interacting with more than one language, your brain forms differently. It creates different neural connections that provide a lifetime cognitive advantage in areas like learning potential, earning potential, mathematics, music, and of course language.”

Koch’s co-founder Nathalie Maitre, a physician and scientist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, was featured in an episode of the Netflix docu-series “Babies” with the research that led to Thrive’s formation and the prototype of the smallTalk tech. Koch said that was both a personal accomplishment for Maitre and a major boost for the company, one that’s already helping connect the company with interested parties.

“It’s been about a month since it aired, and it’s been a great opportunity,” he said. “Nationwide Children’s is recognized as one of the top research institutions for children’s health around the globe and Nathalie is an opinion leader in brain development in infants. So their work helped us appear in this docu-series and our prototype device got a nice 60 seconds of airtime. That’s important because we believe this is a very large market opportunity across the world. It was our first opportunity to create public awareness around the consumer product and we’ve had great responses. There are over a hundred on the waiting list already.”

Koch knows parents are motivated to care for their babies in every possible way, and was surprised to find a lack of similar technology on the market. While he knows parents are providing the resources for healthy and well-developed babies, he says there is room for improvement and growth. That’s the potential impact he sees from Thrive Neuromedical. Plus, he said, it’s parent- and baby-approved.

“Babies are learning machines; but if you look at the marketplace, nobody really brings technology into the way babies learn in a nurturing environment,” Koch said. “Of course you don’t necessarily need technology, but it can do amazing things. The positive impact we want to make is to help babies’ neurological development;I really think that would make a positive impact on the world. Babies respond to it, and it’s a nice opportunity for mom and dad to take a quick 15-minute break while the baby interacts with something novel and interesting while developing an intelligence benefit for life.”

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