This Cleveland Startup is Launching a Language-Learning Pacifier for Babies

How the smallTalk Paci promotes infant interaction with foreign languages

baby and mother

We all know learning a new language is no easy task, especially as an adult. But babies’ brains are uniquely primed to synthesize speech sounds into language. During their first year, infants’ brains start to focus on the language they hear in their surrounding environment. So how can parents continue their child’s exposure to multiple languages? Cleveland-based startup smallTalk has the answer, with interactive tools to make it easier to learn languages later in life.

“We are a tech-based company focused on language and brain development in infants,” said Co-Founder and CEO Dean Koch. “Language is a powerful stimulant that has proven benefits for how a baby’s brain is structured. Babies’ brains are actually designed for differentiating between multiple languages and the first six, seven months of life are a massive window of opportunity. Our patented technology connects devices so we can equip a child to actively engage and ask for language content through their own actions.”

When TechOhio last spoke to the smallTalk team, the startup went by Thrive Neuromedical and had created a pacifier to promote infant engagement with speech sounds across a variety of foreign languages. Now, that technology has been centralized into the smallTalk app, working in tandem with the pacifier.

“In our mobile app, people can access seven different languages,” Koch said. “Our content includes native songs, stories and lullabies performed by real moms speaking or singing to their own baby. The smallTalk Paci is a little sensory unit that fits in the back of a disposable pacifier. The mobile app will detect its signal and play 10 seconds of content for the baby when they suck. We’re demonstrating, through the use of this active technology, that the speech-sound perception of that baby changes based on that active engagement with a foreign language.”

The startup recently pivoted to focus more on app development. When Koch and his co-founder Nathalie Maitre, a neonatologist and developmental specialist, founded smallTalk, the focus was a hardware product called the smallTalk Egg, which brought maternal language content to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. Now, the app bridges the gap between the NICU and the home environment, giving all babies the chance to experience smallTalk’s language content.

“As we continued to talk with people and think about scalability, we started to interact specifically with customers and conduct in-home testing with the smallTalk Egg, which is designed to easily fit into the porthole of a NICU incubator,” he said. “The app’s function was originally designed to populate content to the egg speaker device, but we heard ‘I love this, but I want to use your content elsewhere.’ Our pivot made the app more central. Now, the app works if people want to use it on a variety of speakers.”

Though smallTalk’s direction has evolved, their purpose remains the same. The startup is passionate about fostering a rich and safe environment for the linguistic growth of babies. As they launch their new products, Koch is excited to see where these upcoming ventures take them and is confident that Ohio is the place to propel the company forward.

“Ohio has everything you need,” Koch said. “Early on, we utilized a grant from the Technology Validation Startup Fund, which is part of the Ohio Third Frontier program. That’s been instrumental in developing prototypes. Our product design work is done by a firm called Design Central and our app development is done by a group called Big Kitty Laboratories, both out of Columbus. Our product manufacturing will be done in Dayton. And as we get into next year, we’ll be adding even more content and technology-related products. The electronics industry overall is getting a big boost in Ohio.”

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