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UI Student Developing Text-To-Speech Software

Ryan Ries was ready to move on.

The Sioux City native graduated from Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School in 2004 but elected not to attend college, instead working as a heavy equipment operator, door-to-door salesman, and pizza delivery driver. Those experiences allowed him to save money, and he grew interested in a career that would allow him pursue a long-standing interest in science.

“It was definitely a good learning experience for me,” he said, “but I saw what career opportunities were open to me as someone who was relatively uneducated. I just really desired something that was mentally challenging and that I was passionate about.”

So he went back to school—and founded a company.

Ries founded Translacare in March 2011 after enrolling in UI’s neurobiology and linguistics programs in fall 2010. The company is developing its first generation of text-to-speech software aimed at adult or elderly users, a population he said is largely ignored in speech-aid technology development.

“There are programs out there that are more designed toward kids, with cartoon images and everything,” he said, “which isn’t really appropriate for someone who might be 50, 60, or 70 years old.”

But Ries knew some users in that age range had limited experience with technology, possibly compounded by physical difficulties from the very ailments—strokes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s—that necessitated the text-to-speech aid in the first place. So he hired two additional software developers to make the program as streamlined as possible.

The main Translacare page features five boxes for the most common of words: “I,” “you,” “want,” “need,” and “go.” Folders near each of the boxes hold collections for common locations and objects, such as food options or bathroom needs, while additional folders in the bottom corner of the screen contain less common words.

A user selects a word by touching the screen, which places it in a sentence box. Constructed sentences can be read at any time by pressing a button near the sentence, and individual words can be replaced at any point in a sentence.

Translacare will be compatible with a variety of outlets, such as tablets, smartphones, and laptops. Ries said he’s hopeful this flexibility will give his company an advantage over text-to-speech developers who build their software to interact with company-specific hardware.

“We hope offering this program on different platforms will appeal to people in the sense that these sorts of electronics are already successful and widely used,” he said. “We’ll be able to access a lot more people than traditional companies with hardware.”

Ries hired childhood friend and Coralville medical equipment company Corvida Medical founder John Slump to work on Translacare’s Board of Directors shortly after incorporating Translacare in December 2011. Slump said Translacare’s software should have an easier time getting on the market than Corvida’s equipment did during the first two years after that company was established.

“The company is really exciting because their software doesn’t have to go through the FDA and there’s no need to worry about manufacturing,” he said. “You don’t have those capital-intensive hurdles that make it so hard to get the product on the market path quickly.”

Translacare developers recently finished a condensed version for IN2L, a Colorado software development company considering licensing Translacare software as part of a software suite marketed to nursing homes and rehab centers. The standalone software is still too early in development to have an estimated completion date, Ries said, but he plans to hire an additional software developer using a $100,000 loan he received through the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The recent success of the loan and potential licensing has helped Ries offset the occasional grind of balancing business ownership with college.

“I wish I had something inspirational to say, but it’s been a long, hard, and difficult slug,” he said. “I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t sacrificing some academic success to try to see the business grow and conquer new ground, but at the end of the day—whether I decide to move onto a postgrad career or continue the business—it’ll be a valuable experience that was rooted in my interests and fields of study.”

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