Getting the word out
Building a business on stuttering hasn't been easy. "There's no competition," he says. "There's also no distribution infrastructure. There's nowhere to advertise. There's no manufacturing. There's nothing. I had to build an entire industry." (About 50 percent of his sales come from his web site, www.casafuturatech.com.)
Manufacturing poses a special problem. The entire consumer electronics industry is geared to high-volume mass production. Mitsubishi, which manufactures the $28 computer chip at the heart of his device, typically will not consider an order of less than 1,000 units. Kehoe begged to be allowed to buy just 100 of the chips, which were originally designed for use in karaoke machines. To cut costs, he designs circuit boards on an Apple Macintosh and emails the resulting computer files to an automated factory in California.
The business is growing, Kehoe says, but at an agonizing pace. Last year he sold 150 units-barely enough to cover his expenses. One of Kehoe's biggest obstacles is that many stutterers, frustrated by the failure of previous therapy, are reluctant to try something new. "If you've experienced a disorder all your life, and you've never known what it's like to talk fluently, it's pretty easy to go into denial," he says. In addition, many stutterers are unwilling to wear the devices, despite Kehoe's efforts tomake them as inconspicuous as hearing aids.
A new application for Kehoe's devices involves people with Parkinson's disease, who sometimes develop a stutter as the disease progresses. In contrast to lifelong stutterers, Parkinson's patients are eager to regain their fluent speech. "It's such a shock: these people are desperate. They'll buy anything, even if it provides a relatively minor improvement," he says. "It's the exact opposite of people who stutter."
There's no doubt that Kehoe is his own best advertisement. In telephone conversations today, he speaks in a fluent, engaging style, tossing off wry anecdotes and witty asides like a born orator. He still stutters slightly, but it's a truly amazing turnaround from his days at Reed. At one point during our interview, I asked if he could turn the machine off, so I could hear him without it. The difference was barely noticeable; thanks to a phenomenon known as "carryover fluency" his speech is vastly improved even when he isn't using his device. The great Greek orator Demosthenes is said to have improved his speech by putting pebbles in his mouth and shouting above the pounding surf. David Kehoe used a digital signal processor, but the transformation is hardly less remarkable.
Chris Lydgate recently returned from a stint as a freelance reporter in Singapore and is now a staff writer for Willamette Week in Portland. This is his first article for Reed.