About the author: Dan Feshbach is the CEO and founder of Multiple Hub, a charitable organization dedicated to catalyzing innovation and supporting technologies for the autism community at scale.
When I was raising my son with autism in the 1990s, I searched far and wide for technologies and medical interventions that could help improve his quality of life. At that time it was a desert. Expertise and resources were almost non-existent. As a lifelong entrepreneur, I decided to partner with academics, technologists and passionate parents to create a digital learning solution to help my son and the staggering number of other kids like him. But I struggled for years to find the co-investors who understood the challenge and the opportunity.Read:How the markets broke ‘Trussonomics’
Today, this dynamic is beginning to change. Parental advocacy and billions of dollars in research have led to a greater understanding of autism. Talented entrepreneurs, led by parents and siblings of individuals with autism, have used their passion, expertise and networks to create an emerging technology ecosystem. Advances in smart devices, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, big data and video conferencing have allowed a market to grow around autism technology and other personalized interventions. Startups with autism now receive millions of dollars in funding. Last year, the company I helped build all those years ago was acquired by a large private equity investor. The global market for treatments for autism spectrum disorders is expected to grow from $1.93 billion this year to $3.17 billion by 2029.
However, the market is still in its infancy. It is far from reaching its full potential, nor the scale needed to help the millions of families with autism. Currently, one in 100 children worldwide is diagnosed with autism. In the US, about one in 30 was diagnosed in 2020 – a 50% increase from 2017 and a dramatic increase from the one in 300 when my son was diagnosed. Solving such a formidable challenge requires not only more funding, but also more investment, especially in companies in their earliest stages. This is often where the biggest innovations take place, but where capital is most lacking.Read:Carnival to pay 11.5% coupon on bond secured against cruise ships
The good news is that investors are finally recognizing that autism is a growth market. The bad news is that many of those investments go into services that aren’t scalable, often over-promise and often under-deliver. In many ways, the complexity of the autism market reflects the disorder itself. It is a hugely complex condition, made up of numerous parent subtypes and a wide variety of obstacles. It is not autism that we are all concerned with, but many forms of autism. Even with our growing understanding of the condition, families remain haunted by four questions: What type of autism does my child have? Why can’t my child communicate? How can my child get a job? Who will take care of my child after I graduate?
New start-ups and companies are finally starting to find the answers. Innovations in diagnostics and big data are about to help families discover the condition earlier, as companies like BioRosa work to develop a blood test and biomarker for autism. Floreo and other platforms are leveraging the power of virtual reality to teach important communication and interpersonal skills, while start-ups such as Daivergent and Mentra connect individuals with autism to employers and provide them with support in the workplace. Impruvon Health provides drug management tools and Advasis develops tools to identify sexual abuse. The nonprofit organization I founded has created a global database that now tracks more than 500 technology and life sciences companies in the fields of autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Meanwhile, impact investors in the fields of autism and intellectual disabilities are creating early-stage funds to support these types of fledgling companies. Established 13 years ago, the Disability Opportunity Fund has recently been joined by the Autism Impact Fund, then the Difference Fund, Divergent Ventures, K-Ventures, Enable Ventures, Neuvation, Arc Capital Development, and Moai Capital. These initiatives invest in start-ups that meet key criteria for private investors and provide them with financing, guidance and a better understanding of the market.
However, despite all the innovations impacting the marketing of venture capital, there remains a fundamental gap around these investors’ expectations and confidence in the early-stage companies’ ability to generate market-leading returns. There is a great need to better connect philanthropic capital, which does not require the same returns, with start-ups that have innovative ideas and products, but lack the evidence to secure private investment. We need to create better avenues to help high-potential and impact solutions move from the early pre-revenue stages to viable venture capital contenders.
Scaling up these innovations is not an easy task. The autism community is often divided and conflicted. The market struggles with duplicate sources, incomplete data, limited collaboration and a lack of real innovation. Debates and discussions around treatments such as applied behavioral analysis therapy and concepts such as neurodiversity are often polarizing. At the same time, our community can be insular, hindering and discouraging innovation. As a result, there are not enough entrepreneurs entering the space, nor enough capital, road maps and networks for those who do.
To thrive, we must come together and change the story. It is time for us to recognize the pressing challenges and tremendous opportunities in this emerging sector, making and encouraging investments commensurate with the challenges facing millions of families with autism.
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