SPRINGFIELD — As she worked as a Pathlight fellow in Valley Venture Mentors’ (VVM) accelerator program this spring on technology designed to offer fire-safety guidance to individuals with intellectual disabilities, Lili Dwight learned she needed to tweak some components of her product. Having access to test audiences provided by Pathlight, VVM and other organizations were key in the learning, she said.
An entrepreneur and a founder of Galactic Smarties in Deerfield, Dwight’s app was originally called Fire Drill, and it was intended to tell the user such things as where the fire is and the best route to safety. As part of VVM, Dwight and her business partner, Kristin Harkness, put the software through the paces and learned it needed to have more focus on the fire-drill process itself. They have changed its name to FireGuide and are now seeking funding to bring it to market.
“I’m a geek,” Dwight said. “My skill and joy is in sitting at my computer solving problems, writing code, designing databases — that kind of work. But for my product, I had to learn to go out and talk to people — people who will be using it. I had to communicate my ideas. The process forced me to focus 120% on my markets. I learned a lot about markets.”
Dwight’s journey as a Pathlight fellow in VVM’s four-month, intensive Accelerator program came to a close on May 25 at an awards event. She was one of two Pathlight fellows to take part in work focused on individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“We were excited to watch the ongoing progress and thrilled that the work of these entrepreneurs will help bring increased independence to individuals with intellectual disabilities,” said Ruth Banta, executive director of Pathlight. “We very much appreciate the dedication and commitment of these talented business owners, and we are pleased that being able to communicate with those who we serve helped impact their work.”
Pathlight, headquartered in Springfield, has served people with developmental and intellectual disabilities throughout Western Mass. since 1952, while VVM offers support to business startups. The two nonprofits collaborated on the Pathlight Challenge to encourage entrepreneurs to consider people with intellectual disabilities when designing new products. The Pathlight Challenge was supported in part by a grant from the Westfield Bank Future Fund.
In January, Dwight and Chris Landry, founder and CEO of Habit Stackr, began the Accelerator program as Pathlight fellows; roughly 34 other entrepreneurs chosen from a pool of 200 applicants from around the world also took part. One key benefit to the two chosen entrepreneurs is that they had a built-in test audience in the people served by Pathlight.
“That audience was hugely important for me,” said Dwight, explaining that she did customer interviews with individuals served by Pathlight as well as a like-minded organization in New York, and she also talked with people from New England Business Associates in Springfield and the New England Center for Children. “They helped me reimagine my product.”
Paul Silva, co-founder and chief innovation officer of VVM, said that’s exactly the intention. “What we wanted was to inspire and accelerate innovation geared toward people living on the autism spectrum or with intellectual disabilities. VVM and Pathlight can help make Western Massachusetts a nationally recognized center of innovation not only in the areas of developmental and intellectual disability, but in general.”
HabitStackr is using the science of behavior change to build a tool that will help people blend multiple habits into a daily routine. The company will provide a mobile app combined with a strong user community to help people learn how habits are formed and put what they learn into practice.
Landry said testing the app via the Accelerator program was a remarkable experience. “We came into the program with what we thought was a good idea,” he said. “During the program, we took it all apart and put it together again, based on a lot of feedback from peers, mentors, and potential customers. We left with a lot of confidence in our idea, and we’re grateful to Pathlight for helping make this experience possible.”
When the Pathlight Fellows opportunity was announced last fall for the first time, dozens of startups from across the nation applied for the chance to be a fellow. “There were more than twice as many teams as we had hoped for,” Silva said. “And now, looking back, we can see how participants are light years ahead of where they were just a few months ago.”
Jennifer Bogin is one who applied because she was motivated to develop a product that would serve individuals with intellectual disabilities. While she was not chosen to serve as a Pathlight fellow, her organization, the Field Center, went through the Accelerator program. She said the center is now slated to become the Pioneer Valley’s first multi-disciplinary autism-treatment clinic.
“I want to build a safe and sacred space for people on the autism spectrum and their families,” said Bogin. “This has been my dream — and now it’s being made a reality thanks to Valley Venture Mentors and Pathlight.”
Dwight said being a Pathlight Fellow forced her to focus on business. “It made me stop and ask questions like, ‘how are you going to bring this product to a market?’ ‘How are you going to pay for the design of the interface?’ ‘Who do you want for your team?’ They got me thinking in some very important ways.”
The result is an initial focus on the fire-drill aspect of her product. Although she will ultimately build the navigation feature into her final product, she is hoping to start with a release of the personalized fire drill app.
“In doing my interviews, I discovered that fire drills are the key to the success of getting people out in the event of a fire,” she said. “It turned out that this was especially true for people who have Down syndrome or are on the autism spectrum. Drills remove the crisis from the emergency.”