Israeli Innovators Seize Opportunities in Maryland's Hot Assistive-Tech Space

Written by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman on . Posted in Features

Israeli company Sesame Enable brought the fabled phrase “open sesame” to life: With the Open Sesame Android app, simply speaking those words enables people with limited use of their hands to operate a smartphone. Using the front-facing camera of any Android device, Open Sesame tracks head movements to unlock touch-free texting, social activity, searching the web, and so much more.

 

Sesame Enable was founded by Israeli technology expert turned social entrepreneur Oded Ben Dov. Several years ago, Ben Dov demonstrated a game he developed on TV that was controlled using head gestures. Giora Livne, a former Navy commander who is quadriplegic, saw the program. The next day, Livne called Ben Dov, and said: “Hello, I can’t move my hands or legs. Could you make me a smartphone I could use?”

Ben Dov, who is fluent is nine programming languages, decided to take on Livne’s challenge.

Livne said he wanted a smartphone to order flowers for his wife. Ben Dov realized there are millions of people like Livne worldwide who have medical conditions that limit the use of their hands and prevent them from doing things like using mobile devices. The Open Sesame app gives them back some freedom and control.

“Some people just want to go on Facebook and reconnect with the world,” Ben Dov said. “Children just want to play the same games their classmates are playing.” He said the company is currently working on a selfie feature.

Sesame Enable connected with the State of Maryland in 2016 at a conference at Tel Aviv University (TAU), at which Gov. Larry Hogan was a keynote speaker. Hogan, who was on a mission to Israel with the support of the Maryland/Israel Development Center (MIDC), became an active supporter of the company as it searched for its U.S. headquarters.

“[This] shows you can do real business on those trips,” said Barry Bogage, executive director of MIDC.

Sesame Enable opened its Maryland office in 2017. Ben Dov said Maryland aligns with the company’s vision of supporting people with physical challenges. Maryland was one of the first to adopt the Sesame Enable technology and make it available to its citizens through the Maryland Accessible Telecommunications (MAT) program administered by the Department of Information Technology (DoIT).

“We chose Maryland because of the backing we have received from the state subsidy program, and Bethesda’s proximity to health institutions, including those focusing on veterans,” said Ben Dov. “In addition, we are now close to Washington, D.C., where we know we’ll have the opportunity to influence change needed to make our technology readily available to all Americans who can benefit from it.”

Ben Dov said the move to Maryland has been successful. Now, the company is moving into the ALS Association DC/MD/VA Chapter offices, where he believes there will be additional synergy and growth.

Another Israeli assistive technology company recently moved into the neighborhood: NiNiSpeech.

NiNiSpeech provides tele-therapy based on technologies accessed via computer and smartphone at the patient’s time and location of choice. Dr. Yair Shapira founded the company, combining his experience as a startup executive, a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and his passion for helping his stuttering son. NiNiSpeech works to increase the success rate of speech therapy using evidence-based therapy and technology.

Some 40 million Americans — 12 percent of the population — suffer from speech disorders, Shapira said. Generally, American children receive speech therapy through the public-school system. But Shapira found that there are not enough therapists, the treatments are a cost drain on the system, and many youths fall through the cracks.

Before using NiNiSpeech, a speech therapist needs to assess the patient. Then, a virtual therapist and an individualized treatment method are selected from within the NiNiSpeech network. A speech-language pathologist provides weekly treatment via online video, and the patient practices daily using the NiNiSpeech mobile app, usually with what the company calls a “speech buddy.”

The device gives patients feedback as they practice. While NiNiSpeech does not replace the need for healthcare professionals, it makes the speech therapy process more effective by helping patients practice and track progress between therapy sessions.

“It gives the speech therapist a 360-degree view of what is going on,” said Frank Baitman, general manager of NiNiSpeech's U.S. office.

Assistive technology is a “hot space” in Maryland, and it is helpful to be in an environment where technology and health are already working together, Baitman said.

Added Shapira: “We just want to get the app to the people who could benefit from it. We just want to make sure it is available to those who need it. We think we can do that in Maryland.”

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman

 Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman is the vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Israel365 and a Jerusalem-based freelance writer. She is the former editor in chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times.