LIT student picks up entrepreneur award in Belfast

Fintan Walsh


Fintan Walsh

Award winner: Robert Laffan, 33, with his daughter Sadie, 4. Robert has developed software that aims to improve communication with people with autism
LIT student Robert Laffan has won an award for College Entrepreneur of the Year in Belfast this Thursday.

LIT student Robert Laffan has won an award for College Entrepreneur of the Year in Belfast this Thursday.

The student, who developed a software program to better communicate with his autistic daughter, remains in the running for an Engineers Ireland Award in Dublin this Friday.

Two and a half years ago, Rob’s daughter Sadie was diagnosed with autism. And necessity being the mother of invention, the LIT student developed a program that has allowed him and his wife Emily to improve communication with the four-year-old, hoping it will become a “bible product” for families affected by people with non-verbal disabilities.

His innovation has led him to this week’s Engineers Ireland Award in Dublin and the Student Entrepreneur Award in Belfast, the latter which he won today.

Robert, 33, who has just finished his final year in Industrial Automation and Robotic Systems in LIT, said one class inspired him to create this new software that would assist communication between people with autism and their peers.

“When I was studying industrial automation and robotics, we studied a module called HMI & SCADA and that’s basically human machine interface. So with the software that they were teaching us, I kind of saw a little loophole in it and used that actual software to create a program to help her communicate through pictures into text message,” he explained.

He said Sadie “views the world through pictures”, which is the foundation of his newly-developed software.

“If she wants something, she gets a picture and gives it to us. So what I did was take Sadie’s pictures and incorporated them into this SCADA software, and through the program I was able to select the text messages and then she would go through the software screen to generate a text message that alerts us, either myself or my wife. She would show what she was looking for, how she was feeling, anything like that,” Robert said.

He added that he has been supervising Sadie with the program for the past few weeks, but was finally able to put the innovation into a frame she could use without supervision.

“It’s early days yet. She has been using it, supervised by me. I finally was able to put it into a frame so that she can use it unsupervised, and last night was one of the first successful on-her-own messages straight out to me, and she was looking for a plate of chips. So it’s starting to validate itself.”

Robert said he is delighted with the development so far, adding that the software is now patent pending.

“Sadie can send me a message no matter where I am in the world now. It’s not just limited to being in the same room. Behavioural analysts have told me that technology aids communication. It’s not the answer and it’s not the cure, but it certainly does help,” he added.

While it can be used for people with autism, Robert said that is for anyone with a non-verbal disability. He hopes the awards will help his product be recognised on a national scale.

“The award is a stepping stone to turn it into a bible product that could help other kids, as well. It’s not just limited to autism, it can be adapted to any non-verbal disability really; stroke, Alzheimer, dementia, Down’s Syndrome, anything really,” he said.

Robert said he has been inundated with support and praise from the international and national online community since he put up a video on Vimeo illustrating the concept of his software development.

“A couple of lecturers suggested outside that my project was fairly good and that I should submit for it, so I said I would throw it in and see what happens. We made a good submission video which was the first stage of the award,” he added.