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Digital literacy for folks with autism and other learning disabilities

The firm’s founder wants to rebrand her startup as Digitability to better reflect its mission.

MICHELE McKEONE, 33, of Fishtown, is founder and CEO of Autism Expressed, an online learning system that teaches digital literacy to students with autism and other learning disabilities. Autism Expressed won a $20,000 prize from Educational Services of America and was Geekadelphia Startup of the Year for 2013, when it launched publicly.

Q: How'd you come up with the idea?

A: I have a background in digital media and went to the University of the Arts. I was an autistic-support teacher [at South Philadelphia High School] and realized I was responsible for preparing [students] for life after school. But schools focus on early intervention. Support for services like digital literacy is lacking.

Q: The startup money?

A: I joined the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy and won a $10,000 grant. I built the beta [platform] and used it in my classroom to test it, develop content and launch pilot programs. I entered a competition at Penn's Graduate School of Education and won a $20,000 prize in May 2013, which helped me improve the platform and launch that August. I also got $20,000 from friends and family.

Q: What's the biz do?

A: It's an online learning platform that teaches marketable skills - email, managing time and tasks, word processing and spreadsheets - to students with cognitive disabilities. As we enhance the platform, we'll offer certifications, partner with tech companies, so students can learn software testing or Web design.

Q: The biz model?

A: It's software-as-a-service, both B2C and B2B. Parents can subscribe and pay monthly, quarterly or yearly. Public and private schools and service providers that work with individuals with cognitive disabilities pay an annual license fee per student. For a parent it's about $30 a month. For an organization it depends on the number of students.

Q: Your customers?

A: Most are private schools or service providers in the Northeast. The Philadelphia School District is a customer and has 100 student licenses. The Bancroft School is another local client. They provide services for students with and without autism.

Q: Biggest challenge?

A: I have a background in technology and education, so that's enabled me to build a great product and understand my market. But I don't have experience on how to really scale a business.

Q: Your competitors? What differentiates you?

A: There are products for autism and literacy. But they don't make digital literacy accessible, which is why we're rebranding to Digitability.

Q: What's next?

A: Establish inbound marketing channels through blogs and webinars. Roll out programs to help people develop marketable skills.