“Rocking it in STEM”: SheStarts graduate TalkiPlay secures $750,000 in seed funding to help kids learn to speak


TalkiPlay founder Annie McAuley. Source: Supplied,

Edtech startup TalkiPlay has secured $750,000 in seed funding to scale its evidence-based technology helping children learn to speak.

The round was led by women-focused angel group Scale Investors, and also includes Artesian and some unnamed angel investors.

Founded in 2017 by Dr Annie McAuley, TalkiPlay was first conceived as a method to help McAuley’s own daughter as she struggled to learn to talk.

The technology allows children to interact with their surroundings, with a gamified app helping them learn language through play.

The startup completed BlueChilli’s SheStarts accelerator for women entrepreneurs last year, and featured in an eight-part documentary on the journey.

Speaking to StartupSmart, McAuley says the accelerator process “really made the difference between me having an idea and me having a business”.

Initially, she didn’t see herself as a founder, and a lot of the early conversations in the accelerator were about her feeling a little out of place.

“I don’t wear a hoodie. I’m not the typical person who runs a startup,” she says.

“I wear suit dresses. This is me.”

However, while it can be difficult for women running a business, and “the percentages don’t look good”, she doesn’t necessarily feel her experience reflects that.

“I’ve come out and been completely supported. I went into a funding round believing I could do it.”

It’s believing in yourself that makes all the difference, she says, and having the support to help you believe in yourself.

As McCauley herself puts it, she’s been “rocking it in STEM for a while”.

She has a PhD in medicine, specialising in triage for eye disease, and has undertaken research into predicting blindness in people with diabetes. But even for her, the support from the SheStarts community “made the difference”.

“I didn’t think I needed that big push, but I actually did,” she explains.

“I did not realise I was doubting myself,” she adds.

Right time right space

McAuley says she raised the funds she needed fairly quickly. She already had contacts at Scale Investors and Artesian through her relationship with SheStarts and BlueChilli.

However, she also notes in the markets of childcare and education, it’s the right time for technology like TalkiPlay.

Wifi and tablets are appearing in schools and early childcare centres, making technology more accessible to children and teachers.

“The infrastructure is there,” McAuley says.

“The market is thinking about how to incorporate tech into education and how to do it well,” she adds.

“We’re a good fit for what’s going to work right now and in the future.”

The funding will be used to build a team. As the sole founder, McAuley has been running TalkiPlay single handedly until now.

The startup has the ability to scale very quickly, she says. Now it’s getting some traction, if she was to continue alone, “I would be preventing our scalability”.

McAuley is hiring a customer support team, with plans to bring on three people initially and probably at least one more before the end of 2019.

Over the next six to 12 months, TalkiPlay will be launching its B2B offering, rolling out in early education centres and childcare centres, and with orders already rolling in, McAuley expects to have “a few hundred preschools signed up”.

Making a difference

TalkiPlay comes from a very personal place for McAuley. At 18, the founder suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to re-learn to talk herself.

“It was devastating for me personally,” she says.

“The hardest part was being so socially isolated,” she adds. Not only could she not speak, she also struggled to understand what was being said to her.

“It was not always evident to those around me, but was very evident to me.”

When her daughter struggled to learn to talk later, McAuley drew on her medical knowledge and her personal experience to help her, developing the first ever iteration of TalkiPlay.

“I want to use my surviving to make a difference in the world,” McAuley says, noting that not many people who suffer acute brain injuries go on to get a PhD.

“I was lucky enough to be in the situation that I am … I had to do something about it to improve the lives of others,” she adds.

“The best place I can start to make a difference is with language.”

Raising $750,000 in seed funding is something of a validation of that goal.

“Knowing some incredible people believe in me that they see the potential that we have to act in this space I know I’m going to make a difference.”

Invest in yourself

For other researchers considering going down the startup route, McAuley stresses “innovation doesn’t just happen in the lab innovation happens in real life”, she says.

“Think about what you bring and add to real life, and where you can make a difference, and think outside of the hospital.”

Once you know what your innovation is, and where you can make a difference, get behind it and go for it, she urges, because “passion makes all the difference”.

She also urges founders to share their stories, even if they’re personal and sometimes difficult to talk about.

“Parents started saying to me, ‘I feel like I can do it because I saw you do it’,” McAuley says.

“That’s an incredible thing, to know you’ve made a difference,” she says.

“By sharing, I hope it encourages other parents out there to take the jump and to really start believing in themselves.”

For women with small children, in particular, there can be a lot of pressure about the effect having a family could have on their career.

“My kids are not a negative impact on my career,” McAuley says.

Parents have insights into other parents, that non-parents do not have, she suggests.

“If a company doesn’t realise that, then realise it in yourself, and go out and make that difference.

“Hold on to that knowledge that a change isn’t always a negative one. Harness it and make a difference to where the future is going to lead.”

McAuley urges entrepreneurial women not to take a step back in their careers.

“Always keep going, because it’s an investment in ourselves,” she says.

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