ABPathfinder has developed a software solution that helps children with autism to master crucial skills faster.
Whenever Jeff Blackwood gives a presentation, he always starts with the same question—and almost always gets the same response.
“I always start off by asking, ‘OK, show of hands: Who in the audience has a child or knows somebody with autism?’” said Blackwood, the co-founder, CEO and president of ABPathfinder, a startup that develops software for autism therapists. “And 99 percent of the hands go up. It’s just become that prominent.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 U.S. children is diagnosed with autism in a typical year.
“That’s based on 4-year-old information from the CDC,” Blackwood said. “They’re now estimating it’s probably more like one in 50. So that means there are going to be 60,000 kids diagnosed with autism this year in the U.S. alone.”
As a result, there is a growing population of young people who need special help learning communication and social skills that most of us take for granted.
With ABPathfinder, Blackwood and co-founder Kelly Kerns have developed a software solution that helps the autism therapists who help those kids. ABPathfinder makes it easier for therapists to track children’s progress as they practice the skills that will enable them to attend school and, eventually, land jobs.
Until now, that record-keeping has been done on paper—a necessary, but time-consuming chore for therapists.
“They’ve been begging for a solution,” Blackwood said. “They just haven’t been able to find one that has been flexible enough to meet their needs, to help them get off paperwork, so they can concentrate more on the kids they’re trying to serve.
“We’ve come in and met that need.”
ABPathfinder can point to real results. A 2012 study by a University of Kansas researcher showed that ABPathfinder helps young people acquire skills 20 percent faster. Clients are responding—the company has recorded 300 percent growth for each of the past two years.
THE CUB SCOUT AND THE THREE-RING BINDERS
Kerns and Blackwood met through Lakeside Technology Group, where Kerns was a developer and Blackwood worked in sales. That firm specialized in developing tech solutions for health management, and once it closed, the duo started their own consulting business, Greentree Technology Partners.
But they had another goal beyond working strictly as service providers. They wanted to create their own software solution that could be scaled up and sold to multiple customers.
“We always knew that we needed an actual product,” Kerns said. “We really liked the idea of software as a service that could generate a monthly revenue.”
Blackwood’s interest in aut-ism was sparked by a boy who belonged to the same Cub Scout den as Blackwood’s son. That boy was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old.
“You couldn’t talk to him, and he couldn’t talk to you,” Blackwood said. “And here I see him, five years on at 7 years old, and he’s able to be in Cub Scouts, he’s able to be in school, he goes on camping trips with us. He’s able to be part of society.
“So I knew that what this therapy center did for him starting at age 2 worked.”
In 2010, Blackwood visited the boy’s center, Autism Concepts. He immediately spotted a problem that he and Kerns, with their background in health care technology, could remedy.
“The first thing I saw was all these three-ring binders full of paper,” Blackwood said.
The binders were used to track each child’s progress as he or she practiced dozens of skills, such as identifying objects or colors. Recording each exercise with pencil and paper consumed time that therapists could have spent with the students.
Blackwood and Kerns initially offered to build a database of all the skills that Autism Concepts’ clients could learn. But it quickly evolved into something much more powerful—a way to reduce paperwork and free therapists to focus more on the kids.
“We started doing it kind of as a side project,” Kerns said, “and we realized that this was The One.”
SAVING DATA, FINDING PATTERNS
Neither man had any personal experience with autism before starting ABPathfinder, but they threw themselves into learning about it, Kerns said.
Through contacts they developed at therapy centers and in home-based therapy programs, they were allowed to observe therapy sessions and the interactions between therapists, the children and the data. They read as much as possible about autism and talked to experts.
“We’re solving a business problem,” Kerns said, “so we have to understand the business.”
The homework has paid off. Kerns remembers one sales meeting where he casually mentioned that, of course, he wasn’t a licensed autism therapist. The clients were a little surprised. Based on how well Kerns and Blackwood understood the field, the clients assumed they had some kind of official certification.
When ABPathfinder’s co-founders first started researching autism therapy, they quickly learned that all that data collection served an important purpose. It lets therapists and parents know when children have mastered a specific skill, so they can move onto the next lesson.
“A lot of autism therapy is done in-home,” Blackwood said. “Kids will perform exercises
assigned by a therapist while their parents log their process in—you guessed it—a three-ring binder. The lead therapist might visit only every other week, which can create a lag time in a child’s learning process.”
With ABPathfinder, the results of a practice session can be entered into a smartphone, a tablet or a computer and stored on the company’s platform.
“Because what we do is centralized in the cloud, therapists have access to a child’s progress at a moment’s notice,” Blackwood said. “And all of that progress is instantly graphed for them, so they can see how that child is doing in real time.
“So they can make decisions as a therapy supervisor to say, ‘Hey, it’s time for that child to stop working on color identification, because he knows his colors. Let’s move on to this new skill.’”
One thing the software doesn’t do: prescribe a particular line of therapy, or tell therapists what they should be doing.
“We made a specific decision not to do that,” Blackwood said. “We are simply providing the therapist with tools to allow them to do better. We don’t want to take any decisions out of their hands. Instead, we’re giving them ammunition that they can make better decisions with.”
There are a handful of other companies doing similar work as ABPathfinder, Blackwood said.
“They’re usually going to be therapy centers that saw the need for what we’re doing and developed it for themselves,” Blackwood said, “and then went out to the market as an afterthought and said, ‘Hey, buy our software, but you’ve got to change your entire methodology to the way that we do therapy, too.’”
“Right now,” Kerns said, “our biggest competitor is pencil and paper.”
LOOKING FOR NEW SOLUTIONS
More than 45 autism therapy centers across the country use ABPathfinder’s software, including the Cleveland Clinic, TheraCare in New York and STE Consultants near San Francisco.
To keep up with demand, Kerns and Blackwood plan to approximately double their employee headcount to 27 by the end of 2015. Late last year, the company closed a Series A round that included an investment from FCA Venture Partners, a Nashville firm with extensive experience in the health industry, in addition to previous funds from Omaha-based Dundee Venture Capital and other investors.
“So, basically, we’ve got validation from the market,” Blackwood said. “We’ve got customers out here. We’ve got revenue coming in. And it’s now the tipping point of, ‘How do we put more fuel on that fire? How do we get things going faster?’”
While the majority of ABPathfinder’s current customers work with younger children, Blackwood and Kerns want to help other age groups, too. That’s why they plan to develop future products that will be tailored to teens and adults.
ABPathfinder also hopes to build software to help therapists whose patients have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
And eventually, ABPathfinder could help researchers learn more about how autism itself works.
Today, most studies on autism tend to focus on very small groups—often just a few dozen kids. ABPathfinder’s database includes more than 2,000 students in 35 states.
“Let’s say we’re working with Therapy Center X, and they’ve taken a genetic sample from 120 kids and found out that 30 of them tested positive for this genetic marker,” Blackwood said. “We can work with the therapy center to see if the children act any differently than kids who don’t have the genetic markers. And will that lead to a better or more focused line of treatment?”
To make sure its product stays responsive to students’ and clients’ needs, ABPathfinder has also formed advisory boards that include customers and scientific experts on autism.
“These are actual therapists telling us, ‘This is how we use the system, and this is what we need,’” Kerns said.
‘WE WENT ALL IN’
While ABPathfinder has earned a warm reception from customers and investors, it’s taken a great deal of hard work and patience.
The startup began in 2010, but Kerns and Blackwood weren’t able to hire their first employee until late 2012. They didn’t have a minimum viable product until the summer of 2013. All the while, the two men had to keep plugging away at their consulting business to keep the lights on.
Kerns believes that ABPathfinder is where the market for electronic medical records was 10 years ago. Back then, a lot of health professionals were reluctant to adopt that technology. Today, you can’t imagine a doctor’s office or hospital without EMRs.
As more people see how much good ABPathfinder’s service can do, Kerns said, it’s going to become a go-to solution for autism therapists.
“When I say we went all in, we went all in,” Kerns said. “We spent our life savings because we knew that this software could have an impact on society. We knew it would become an absolute, unquestioned part of every therapy process, and we can go to bed every night knowing that we helped therapists help individuals in need.”
(photo by Alistair Tutton Photography)