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Meet the M?ori innovator behind the world’s first digital interactive sign language game

Top image: Adele Hauwai of SeeCom

As Hauwai explains: “Sign language is one of the easiest languages to learn and it can be fun for children, parents and wh?nau. There are so many benefits to learning sign language. It’s not just for deaf people. We educate parents how to communicate with all children using Te Reo Rotarota (sign language), even parents of children with autism or with slow speech development or learning challenges.”

SeeCom was established in November 2016 by Hauwai, and has grown to 12 employees. Initially set up to teach basic sign language to parents and caregivers of babies, the company has become much more than that. For instance, in the past year, SeeCom has been recognised with multiple awards for its products and services, which also includes sign language posters and flash cards in Te Reo M?ori.

Hauwai says one of the challenges of her business is the misconception that sign language is only for deaf people. Sign language “is for everyone,” she says, and can be used as a “support language” for everyone from babies, toddlers and children to those with communication barriers. “Sign language is empowering,” she explains. “I struggled with learning, and sign language helped me. I’ve been communicating in sign language for more than 25 years. For a toddler or child who struggles to communicate, it reduces frustration and tantrums, helps with bonding and relationships and boosts confidence.”

SeeCom offers professional development sign language classes for schools and organisations. They are particularly focused on training people who are fluent in Te Reo M?ori to be sign language tutors, and have been inundated with interest from M?ori organisations and schools, including kura kaupapa and k?hanga reo. “We’ve had strong interest from parents of children with disabilities, health workers, social workers, kaiako teaching Te Reo M?ori and school teachers,” says Hauwai. “It’s a win-win for all communities – even opening up employment and education opportunities for people with health limitations but have the competency and passion to teach Te Reo Rotarota.”

Of Waikato-Tainui, Ng?ti Kahungunu and T?hoe descent, Hauwai juggles family life and a six-year-old son with entrepreneurship. She says she’s passionate about sharing her love of sign language. “There are more than 200 sign languages around the world, so there is huge potential to develop sign language products, services and apps.”

The SeeCom team are in the process of developing an interactive digital game that uses sign language. Their innovative sign language game traces the gamer’s body movements and signs to make the character do something in the game. “If you sign JUMP, the character jumps, sign SWIM, the character swims,” explains Hauwai.

The game has progressed beyond the prototype stage, and now SeeCom are researching producing a full version. “We are testing it in different markets to see how different users interact with the game, and we are looking for investors and funding to get it to market,” says Hauwai.

Kahurangi Taylor, a Waikato Innovation Park business growth advisor, says SeeCom’s new product is innovative with a lot of potential. “It’s a really cool game and something that everyone will enjoy.”

Taylor has been working with Ms Hauwai since last year, and the Waikato Innovation Park business growth team has helped with advice and funding to grow. The group is funded by the Regional Business Partner Network (RBPN), which is supported by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) and Callaghan Innovation.

Kahurangi Taylor.

Hauwai was encouraged to apply for a Callaghan Innovation Getting Started grant, which covers 40 percent towards the total cost for game developers, to work on developing a prototype for the game last year. Waikato Innovation Park business growth advisors mentored Huawai through the application process.

The Waikato Innovation Park team also helped her access mentoring and networking events with other entrepreneurs. “I’ve attended a lot of the M?ori business hui and it’s been powerful hearing other people’s success stories and experiences,” says Hauwai, who is currently a participant on the K?kiri M?ori business accelerator programme, run by Te W?nanga o Aotearoa, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and Callaghan Innovation.

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In the past year SeeCom has won four awards. These included Launching Leaders (LDS-BPA) 2016, the Dig My Idea – M?ori Innovation Awards (Open Category) in 2017, Innovate NZ Competition Finalist 2017 and the K?kiri Awards 2018. Hauwai also received a M?ori entrepreneur bursary to attend the Social World Enterprise Forum in September 2017.

Naturally, with such an interesting journey so far, Hauwai has some sage advice for other entrepreneurs. She says persistence, grit, resilience and passion are all required for any business. “Networking is really important too, and making contacts. You also have to be self-motivated and ensure you don’t keep your good ideas in your head, that you have the courage to execute them.”

Hauwai also says entrepreneurs can get caught up in the work required to launch a business, but it’s important to be careful to avoid burn-out. “It’s important to retain a good work-life balance. Go for walks, get good sleeps, spend time with family, get a massage or meditate.”

And where do things go from here? Hauwai says she hopes her business will have a positive effect on people lives. “With educating more communities about how sign language can benefit them as a support language, we have done away with the myth that sign language is just for deaf people,” she says. “What we are doing is trying to develop hands-on learning that is fun, educational and will help people to communicate through sign language.”

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