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Maddie Rogers, co-founder of Sharp Synaptics.
Maddie Rogers, co-founder of Sharp Synaptics.

When Maddie Rogers was in high school, her grandfather suffered a stroke. As with many stroke victims, the ordeal made communicating difficult. Rogers and her father, a software developer, looked for an app to help him express his needs and work on his speech. They didn’t find any good options.

She took the problem to several classmates and, under her father’s mentorship, they developed an app of their own. Hospital Stay: Stroke is designed to help patients who have just suffered a stroke communicate basic needs. It has buttons for “Yes, No, Clean Me, Roll Over, Bathroom, and Pain.”

They went on to develop an app for stroke patients in later stages of recovery. Aphasia Therapy helps people regain their speech, by populating the app with photos of important things in their day-to-day life.

“The stroke survivors’ caretaker can take pictures, give the picture a name, and record themself saying the word correctly,” said Rogers. “Then the stroke patient can practice saying the pictures and determine if they got the picture correct by listening to the audio clip.”

Rogers and former high school classmates Gary Yost, Nathan Wacker, Kevin Lee, and Maddie Fletcher, developed the apps as part of a small startup, called Sharp Synaptics. The company is headquartered in Federal Way, Wash. but several of its co-founders work remotely, as they have gone on to college.

hospital stay

Rogers, for example, is studying at the Colorado School of Mines, while several of her other co-founders are attending universities in Washington.

We caught up with Rogers for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We create iOS apps for people struggling with aphasia and other communication disabilities.”

Inspiration hit us when: “In November 2015, my grandfather had a stroke and now suffers from aphasia. Aphasia is the loss of the ability to express speech. When looking for apps to help him regain his speech we noticed that almost all of the apps targeted to aphasia patients are extremely overpriced or way too over-complicated for a stroke survivor to use. That’s when we decided to make our own apps to help aphasia victims.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. We all pitched in a little money to start up our company. We kept our costs to a minimum and worked on our own time.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “We have higher-quality products at a lower price point than our competition, that are simple for a stroke patient to use.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Evaluated what others have done and improved upon their applications. There are apps in the space we’re competing in but their usability wasn’t that great, which is a big drawback for our target audience, which is typically impaired and often elderly users. We went with very, very simple UI design principles and also focused on a key concept, which was to not focus on general therapy for users with libraries of common icons and objects, but to focus on the items that are actually important to them — pictures of loved ones, favorite foods, etc.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “The biggest mistake was not anticipating the differing availability of our team members during a very busy summer.  We work very non-traditional schedules and are not co-located so this made work very challenging at times.  We expected more core time together during the summer but it didn’t work out that way, so we all had to be very flexible working with each other and we had some incredible bursts that occurred when we could co-locate and work together. We put in some very long days at times but also managed to enjoy our summer break from school.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates because he is interested in helping others, which is what our app aims to do.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “All of us were completely new to team-based development and our mentor selected GitLab for our source control management system and we had to learn the tool very quickly. Managing conflicts was challenging, as our first app was very small.  Our mentor set up exercises to prepare us for development but we spent a lot of time on Google Hangouts trying to work through this. Misery loved company.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “We are a very small company composed of our five co-founders. Right now we are not looking to hire anyone.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you can’t. All five of us started this company without any experience programming in Swift, and now we are selling our apps in the Apple App Store.”

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