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How BNZ Start-up Alley winners Talk Town are using tech to help the hearing-impaired make friends

A BNZ Start-up Alley win at this year's Webstock is pretty cool. But University of Canterbury alum Zoë Haws and Talk Town have much bigger goals - like making it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing children to make friends.

A lot has been written about the physical challenges of being deaf or hard-of-hearing. But what hasn’t been discussed as much are the social challenges – particularly the problem of making friends, and especially in school; after all, we all know how cruel kids can be to each other when it comes to people who are different in any way.

Zoë Haws knows all about this – and has created an innovative solution that takes a challenge and turns it into a game.

A social enterprise start-up, Talk Town teaches digital self-advocacy and communication skills through the one thing all kids love: games.

Haws says a digital game is an ideal format for Talk Town, because it’s practical, accessible no matter where someone is, can be played independently, is child-led, is highly visual for deaf learners, readily scalable, and accessible to all children via their school or local library computers.

And, Haws says, it can help students perform better in school. “If you’re lonely at school and don’t have friends, you usually don’t do well,” she explains.

Zoë Haws pitching at BNZ Start-up Alley at Webstock 2018 in Wellington.

Based in Christchurch (a place that’s “a real hotbed for audiology and innovation”), Haws says the idea for Talk Town was developed some time ago. “The seed for Talk Town was sown over 10 years ago,” she explains. “While on playground duty at the primary school next to my university, a nine-year-old deaf boy – who had good speech skills – was cut off from the games and conversations of his peers. After some time wandering around, he joined in a chasing game with much younger children. It occurred to me that he couldn’t overhear the social subtleties of how playground friendships are formed, so he hadn’t learned these skills. Why didn’t someone teach him? I tried to suggest a few ‘icebreaker’ phrases... and then the bell rang. There was never enough time to get through all the academic material and speech therapy drills, let alone ‘extra’ stuff.

“Over the following years, I saw how this situation played out over and over again. Hearing technology has improved exponentially over this time, but it’s not perfect. Deaf kids are still not fully socially immersed in their local mainstream classrooms. And this can lead to a range of negative outcomes. Talk Town aims to improve the school experience of deaf kids, and equip them with skills that will help them reach their full potential throughout their lifetimes.”

BNZ Start-up Alley judges at Webstock 2018 in Wellington.

Talk Town was further conceptualised when Haws was finishing her master’s degree in audiology at the University of Canterbury (UC). In addition to UC, supporters include the National Foundation for the Deaf and Human Interface Technology Lab New Zealand.

Part of a “massive disruption” taking place in audiology, Haws says Talk Town has already been experiencing high demand. “There’s a huge demand for it. I’ve had parents and kids asking, ‘is it ready yet?’”

Haws says a beta version will be launching soon in Australasia. “With the feedback and information from those markets we will then continue globally, starting in English-speaking countries.”

There’s also a lot of interest from folks who know about tech, innovation and entrepreneurship. After all, Haws and Talk Town took home the top prize in the Social Enterprise Kick Start category at BNZ’s Start-up Alley at Webstock in Wellington in mid-February. Facing down judges Derek Sivers, Anna Guenther, Leah Culver and BNZ head of small business Harry Ferreira, Haws says the win is a “massive endorsement” for what the company is doing. “The prize money and the connections we’ve made bring us another step closer to what we’re trying to achieve,” she says.

Zoë Haws on stage at BNZ Start-up Alley at Webstock 2018 in Wellington.

And what kind of prizes are we talking? Try $20,000 cash prize from BNZ, and access to free business mentors provided by BNZ. Not bad, eh?

“It’s not just the money – Webstock was fantastic and inspiring,” says Haws. “Applying innovation and technology to solve real-world problems is the way to go. It’s not just about the new and shiny thing.”

Winning such prestigious competitions is something Talk Town has done before – multiple times. “This is the third competition I’ve entered, and the third one I’ve won,” says Haws.

Despite Talk Town’s success, Haws remains humble – and committed to the greater goal of using tech to make people’s lives better. “I’m not about profit. I’m about sustainability and viability.”

And advice for other “social entrepreneurs” to achieve their goals? “It comes back to the basics,” explains Haws. “Know your customers and understand your problem. Play to your strengths, but know and work on your weaknesses.”

She adds a surprising fact – but one that makes her commitment all the more impressive. “I still have a day job.”

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