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Social Businesses Look to Accelerate Impact

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From AngelPad and 500 Startups to Techstars and Y Combinator, there's no shortage of startup accelerators sprinkled across North America. But few focus on supporting social purpose businesses that aim to provide investors with a financial return as well as a positive social impact.

Impact8, which runs an eight-week program under the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing in Toronto, is one such accelerator. It recently showcased eight early-stage ventures that garnered advisory services, mentorship and finished off with a series of eight-minute pitches to investors. All of the businesses had created innovations around health or wellbeing, including a specialty meal-delivery service for patients undergoing cancer treatments (The Living Kitchen), a suite of apps with medical monitoring services (QoC Health) and a cervical cancer-screening device designed for women, made by women (Eve Medical).

A few ventures harnessed technology specifically to assist individuals with different disabilities or disorders:

Squag
This app feels like a full-fledged Website, designed for children with autism "to explore their interests, initiate ideas and build confidence," Squag says. How so? Kids can see an image of themselves in a digital mirror, read positive messages left by their parents (or, once re-launched with a peer-to-peer version, maybe their friends as well) and customize their page with all sorts of digital art -- including works created by artists with autism. They can also chronicle their thoughts in an e-journal, all within an environment that is designed not to over-stimulate -- and thereby overwhelm them.

Started in 2010, Squag has signed on a couple of partners, including the Ontario Brain Institute, and is speaking with some kids' tablet makers to preload its program onto their devices, says Sara Winter, Squag's founder. While it is seeking $150,000 to help build a peer-to-peer network and fund a marketing campaign, among other uses, Squag is projecting just 3,000 users will be paying its $8.99-per-month fee by the end of next year.

Komodo OpenLab's Tecla Shield DOS
Though it's a mouthful to say, the Tecla Shield DOS helps individuals with disabilities use a touchscreen device--like a tablet or smartphone--without ever having to touch an actual screen. Instead, movements such as blinking, blowing into a straw or using a head to hit buttons on the headrest of a wheelchair can be used to send text messages or emails, make phone calls and access e-Books or websites.

The technology can be extremely useful for certain those with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy, and one six-year-old girl with Cereal palsy recently used it to play games like Angry Birds against her sister, says Mauricio Meza, Komodo's co-founder. He's looking to raise $250,000 and banking on both recent and forthcoming pro-accessibility legislation in a number of countries to help reach a pool of up to 9 million possible customers. So far, Komodo has amassed 750 users in 22 countries.

MyVoice
The two apps under MyVoice aid communication for anyone with a speech or language disability. RocketKeys is a customizable talking keyboard with predictive writing technology for unsteady hands, where individual letters can be enlarged or moved to any order. TalkRocket Go, meanwhile, provides numerous pictures and words that people can touch and have read aloud while ordering food or taking public transit, for example, and the images are categorized in folders such as "home" or "work" so they're quicker to access than other programs long on the market. According to Tony Gross, MyVoice's community director, the latter is a "modern version of what Stephen Hawking uses to communicate."

On the lookout for $300,000 from "socially-conscious investors" (to help drive global adoption and increased language options), MyVoice's executives have been selling their apps for $99 to $159 while noting competitors' technologies often range from $5,000 to $20,000. Another one of their big selling points: a program under the Ontario Ministry of Health funds two-thirds of the cost of a prescribed iPad or iPod Touch preloaded with the TalkRocket Go app.