VersaMe Wearable for Babies Works to Close Word GapBy Sarah Martin
VersaMe Wearable for Babies Works to Close Word Gap
VersaMe is a Stanford startup focused on early childhood education that was co-founded by Jon Boggiano, Chris Boggiano, and Nicki Boyd. Research shows that talking to young children is a critical driver of achievement. Their first product, the Starling, is a wearable device for babies and young children that measures verbal engagement by counting words spoken to and spoken by the child. The device delivers actionable feedback to a parent or teacher via a smartphone companion app.
Their product won 2018 Best of Baby Tech, Learn and Play from popular baby website, The Bump.
I chatted with co-founder and CEO Jon Boggiano about the company’s story and their plans for the future of VersaMe.
Solving a Real-World Problem
When VersaMe co-founders Jon Boggiano, Chris Boggiano, and Nicki Boyd met as Sloan Fellows at Stanford University, they knew the wanted to solve a real-world problem together.
Co-founders Jon Boggiano, Nicki Boyd, and Chris Boggiano
They found their inspiration in the “30 Million Word Gap.”
Research shows that the number of words a young child hears before the age of three is strongly predictive of their achievement in language and literacy development. Yet not all children get the same start in life. A landmark study demonstrated that children in families with low levels of parent-child verbal interaction hear up to 30 million fewer words than children in families with high verbal interaction. This reality has come to be known as “the 30 million word gap,” or simply the “word gap.” Children on the low end of the gap often experience developmental delays and have a tough time achieving literacy and other educational milestones.
VersaMe sensed an opportunity to have a profound positive impact on children’s development.
With guidance from Anne Fernald, director of Stanford’s Language Learning Lab, VersaMe explored ways to make parents be more attentive, talkative and mindfully present in their child’s life.
In 2017, they fully launched their first product, the Starling.
The Starling is a wearable that clips onto a baby or small child to give parents real-time insights into their child’s day. The wearable delivers metrics on verbal engagement, motion, noise and sunlight exposure and gives parents personalized, actionable feedback to enhance their child’s development.
The Starling’s ingenuity relies heavily on a team of top-notch engineers who have built the Starling with everything in mind from identifying background noises from TVs and radios to designing algorithms that recognize speech without recording it.
“We’ve designed the entire experience with privacy and security in mind,” says Boggiano.
The Starling does well among self-described “geek-moms” (and dads) and has received 92% five-star reviews on Amazon. One Amazon customer happily praises the Starling, “having it around is a great reminder to talk aloud to our baby.” Another customer chimes, “it is all about staying mindful and it has absolutely helped me improve my relationship with my youngest child.”
Other parents are more skeptical. One busy toddler mom I spoke with acknowledges that the Starling is a great concept but worries that it would overwhelming to keep up with the daily routine. “There are too many gadgets,” she concluded.
Despite some parents’ doubts, VersaMe is encouraged by their early traction and plans to extend their reach through their community of evangelists.
“Educationally-motivated parents are our target,” says Jon Boggiano.
Priced at $149 on their website, Boggiano believes that the Starling is accessible to all parents eager to set their child up for success.The market seems to support this hypothesis: the US retail market for baby durables amounted to $9.3bn in 2015. And the future opportunity may be even larger, as there are 4M babies born each year in the US to a population of increasingly tech-savvy parents.
“People have all these assumptions about parents, that only rich parents can afford to do something like this – and that’s not true, it’s educationally motivated parents regardless of income,” says Boggiano.
VersaMe has over 30,000 subscribers to their mailing list and thousands of Starling users. In addition to their primary target market of parents, teachers, libraries, and non-profit organizations are purchasing the Starling.
Vision for the Future
VersaMe plans to aggressively expand internationally in 2018. Boggiano lists the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Korea and Singapore as likely spots. Fortunately for the Starling, its proprietary speech-recognition algorithm already counts words in most languages. They have recently partnered with SoapBox Labs, an Irish speech recognition startup and Tile, a find-anything app.
Version 2.0 of the Starling is expected to roll out this year and VersaMe will continue work on their other product, SPOKE. SPOKE is a software solution that connects the caregivers in a child’s network to each other and delivers personalized, actionable feedback and media so that everyone is working in unison to maximize that child’s development.
Boggiano sees VersaMe’s next biggest challenge as deciding where to go in the realm of education technology from birth to age 5.
“We have so many themes, and our road map is pretty long in terms of what we can do,” Boggiano notes.