Originally published in Business Digest, June 1997

Aiding Speech in Any Language

by Julia Lynam

Laureate Learning Systems of Winooski is a glowing example of the type of company Paul Castrucci and Charlie Dickinson would like to see more of in the state as part of their Vermont High Tech Initiative (VHTI), featured in Business Digest, May 1997.

A well established and innovative software company with a staff of 27, many of them highly skilled artists, illustrators, writers and researchers, Laureate further contributes to the health of the local economy by out-sourcing its manufacturing and fulfillment functions to a Williston company, Kea Technologies Inc.

So it comes as no surprise that Castrucci and Dickinson should have invited Dr. Mary Wilson, president and co-founder of Laureate, to join the board of directors of VHTI. “I’m always interested in anything that’s going to help Vermont economically,” Wilson says. “Especially if it’s going to create jobs and not pollute, which is a definition of the software industry.

“If you ask me do I want Vermont to become Silicon Valley, the answer is ‘No,’ and I don’t think most Vermonters do, either. But if we use the term as a metaphor for a sensible development of the software industry here - then yes, I am in support.”

A native of Chicago, Mary Sweig Wilson moved to Vermont in 1969 as an assistant professor at UVM, where she went on to direct the speech-language pathology program and become a full professor. Her doctorate, in communicative disorders, was earned at Northwestern; her master’s degree came from Emerson College in Boston. She and her husband, John, live in Hinesburg, and have a grown son.

Growing up in the 1950s, she harbored dreams of becoming a lawyer. “But, before the days of guaranteed federal student loans, women without other resources just didn’t have choices,” Wilson says. “So I looked around for a profession that it would pay to go into.” She majored in theater and speech at Smith College, picked speech and language pathology as a career path, and never looked back. “I’m absolutely glad I found it,” she says of her career choice, “we have too many lawyers!”

[photo] Mary Wilson and Bernard Fox established Laureate Learning Systems in 1982 to use computer technology to help people with speech and language disabilities to understand and express everyday language. First-year sales of $1,300 did not deter them from growing their company’s sales to more than $2 million last year. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Wilson and her business partner, Bernard Fox, have turned their vision of the use that could be made of personal computers to help people with speech and language disabilities into a strong business. But, despite its commercial success, Laureate is still firmly grounded in its original ethos of providing a service to people with disabilities. Wilson’s eyes light up with enthusiasm as she describes the reactions of young children in China, where the company is preparing to launch a Mandarin version of its software.

Now a thriving business with annual sales of more than $2 million and growing, Laureate was started in 1982 by Wilson, then a professor of speech and language disorders at UVM, and Fox, one of her students.

“PCs were very new in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” Fox says. “Mary had some really wonderful ideas for curricular development, using voice recognition and so forth, that no one else was thinking of at the time, so we knocked a few ideas together.”

“When we had the stuff ready to be published we approached the company that published our written work, but they weren’t ready to bite. We had to start our own publishing company. There weren’t any options.” Fox pauses, grinning: “People thought we were crazy. They still think we’re crazy, but now they’re envious.”

Fox grow up in Arlington, Mass., and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in the mid-’70s. “I was lucky enough to have an early exposure to computers in high school,” he says, adding that he took all the programming courses he could at UMass, but majored in communications science and disorders because there was no computer major. He worked as a speech clinician at state facilities for a few years (“where I learned so much,” he emphasizes), before opting to seek a master’s at UVM and met Wilson.

Based on their mutual interest in using the emerging computer technology as a therapeutic medium, the two speech pathologists first attempted to develop funding to “put UVM on the map as the leader in this field” — but they did not have the support of their department. “We knew we had something,” Fox says, simply. So they developed their ideas as a business rather than an academic department.

Fox and his wife, Sara, also a speech pathologist, live in Essex Junction with their young son and daughter.

In its first year, 1982, Laureate sold just $1,300 worth of software: “But we considered that a success and we were encouraged,” says Wilson.

The company grew quickly and in 1986 moved into the historic building they occupy on Winooski’s East Spring Street. The faintly Oriental style of the building, which was once the main office of a large factory, seems appropriate in view of Laureate’s current Chinese venture.

That’s part of a considered strategy for growth. “In the past year,” says Wilson, “we’ve been starting to lay the groundwork for a push into the international market. This is consistent with our wanting to reach out and serve people everywhere who can benefit from our programs.”

In addition to the Chinese project, Laureate, in partnership with Tiger Electronics of Washington, D.C., is developing Portuguese versions of its products to launch in Brazil, the biggest software market in South America.

Wilson expresses a delighted curiosity about the Chinese market: “Speech language pathologists just don’t exist in China,” she explains. “And a country that doesn’t have these professions isn’t just suddenly going to produce them, so they’re looking for other ways to provide those services.

“We think that individuals will be purchasing the software, probably on prescription, as, for instance, physical therapy might be prescribed by a doctor in this country. Schools will be very interested, too.” A visit to a Shanghai school for the deaf confirmed Wilson’s impression that such resources are desperately needed.

With most of its existing products in English, Laureate’s biggest markets after the United States have been Canada and Australia. “We also sell to Americans who live abroad, and can’t obtain speech and language services where they live,” adds Wilson. “And our first South African sale,” she continues, with obvious pride, “went to Soweto many years ago. They were so pleased they sent us pictures of the kids working with our software.”

One of Laureate’s greatest challenges has been in keeping up with the galloping hardware developments of recent years. “When we started out we were programming for 48K Apple IIs, and we still sell a lot of software for that type of machine, because many schools still use them,” Wilson says. “At first, we were driving the hardware market. People who wanted our software would go out and buy a computer that could run it.

“That’s turned around completely now, and as the hardware has become more and more sophisticated consumers have become used to, and expect, a glitzy, multi-media approach. Although our basic curriculum hasn’t changed much, we have to work very hard to keep our presentation contemporary.”

Wilson and Fox are primarily educators; their software is unequivocally educational and they have little time for entertainment products masquerading as education. “Much of the software labeled educational on the market now is simply entertainment, from which people may incidentally learn something,” says Wilson. “Although we use the familiar tricks of computer graphics, animation and sound to hold the interest of the user, Laureate programs are truly educational.”

It’s a theme that is echoed by other experts in the speech/language field: Dr. Madalaine Pugliese, president of Pugliese, Davey and Associates of Marblehead, Mass., which provides training and support to school districts nationwide, says: “Laureate’s work has been critically important for teachers and parents. When you’re working with children who are language- delayed or non-speaking, you’re working with language all the time, not just when the therapist is there.” Suitable software enables children with speech and language difficulties to learn continuously at school and at home.

Laureate has been widely recognized as a leader in its field and received many awards. Most recently it’s won, against stiff competition, two federally funded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, each worth $750,000. “These grants are helping us to fund the development of the next generation of products,” says Wilson. “They allow us to try some innovative software approaches that we might not otherwise be able to risk.”

Wilson is hoping to receive a third SBIR grant, to develop programs for elderly people with dementia. “These programs won’t cure dementia,” she says. “But people with diseases like Alzheimers, suffering for 10 or 12 years, could make good use of them. Although there are some software products specifically designed for elderly people, I don’t know of anyone using this approach with people suffering from dementia.”

Wilson’s work has been recognized with several awards, most recently the 1996 Leadership Award of the technology and media division (TAM) of the International Council for Exceptional Children. Dr. Flo Taber-Brown, adaptive technology specialist for Dade County, Fla., public schools and a past president of TAM, says, “She (Wilson) has done some marvelous things for special education — she starts with expertise in the speech language field, then adds the technology. Laureate material is excellent, especially for teachers who are not speech and language specialists but who have to deal with these issues.”

Gina Scafa, speech/language pathologist with the Burlington School Department, highlighted another advantage to having a company like Laureate in the doorstep: “We’ve had an opportunity to use software while they are developing it — to work in partnership” she says. “Bernie and Mary have been fantastic to work with. Laureate software has a solid research base and really targets what kids need. And the kids love it!”

This commitment to their mission, coupled with vision and commercial acumen, has accounted for Laureate’s growth. Wilson and Fox have adapted to the changing demands of the market, while preserving their commitment to their profession. “Over the years there have been some developments in linguistic theory, which we have incorporated into our products,” says Wilson. “But in general, what we are teaching has remained very much the same since we started.

“Our very first product, “First Words”, which we started with in 1982 is still one of our best sellers. When you get something right you don’t change it!”