Lakeridge grad Alex Dassise creates a device that could help people with disabilities
A 2015 graduate of Lakeridge High School is pioneering a tool for his brother and people everywhere who need speech therapy support or just love music and flying discs.
Alex Dassise, currently a sophomore at Oregon State University, has created DiscJam a technical, musical device adhered to a flying discs center for his 16-year-old brother Stefan Seiji Dassise, a junior at Lake Oswego High. Dassise says he wanted to connect with his brother, who was diagnosed with a severe case of autism at a very young age and is nonverbal, with limited words. Seiji Dassise generally avoids eye contact, but sometimes flashes a bright smile.
Dassise sought to take that limited spoken language his sibling possessed and build upon it, while also fostering an emotional connection. The two brothers both love sports, Dassise participated in soccer and basketball during high school; while Seiji Dassise is involved in cross-country and track at LOHS. The pair found a connection through DiscJam, which can complement speech therapy, Dassise says.
With the first prototype I created, it was the first time I was able to engage in a meaningful social experience with my younger brother, Stefan, Dassise says. We shared a smile, laugh and dance, in a whole new way, like never before.
DiscJam, billed as the worlds first flying speaker, can be programmed to play certain songs and to include lessons on pronouncing words that a user can practice alone or with a speech therapist. From a speech therapy perspective, a users reward for a successful pronunciation can be to enjoy the music and lights that the device emits. Its also easy to toss, like any flying disc.
I think it can help with learning problems, Dassise says. Anyone who has any developmental needs can use our project.
Its also a fun lark for people who enjoy music and flicking a wrist to make disc soar. Most college freshmen arent creating prototypes of products they plan to mass market, but Dassises brother and his life experiences transformed him into a young businessman.
By the beginning of junior year in high school, Dassise had endured three concussions while playing soccer, and his goal was not to get any more of them. But, his grades had dropped already dropped a lot. Anxious about applying for college, he decided to take a chance to better his future.
He attended Young Entrepreneurs Business Week (YEBW) where he says he discovered he had a passion for business and entrepreneurship. He then pursued a six-month entrepreneurial program called Catapult at Stanford and the Google campus in California, and he was the only Oregonian participating in the program. Thats when the DiscJam concept coalesced.
Dassise and his friend Logan Insinga, both Lakeridge seniors at the time, pitched the idea (patent pending) at a state DECA competition, where it received a 59 percent. (DECA, which includes high school and college divisions, has the mission of preparing leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.)
It was the ideas first attempt and first failure, Dassise says. However, it really motivated me to make the first prototype. I made the first prototype for a YEBW Entrepreneur week session.
Dassise invented the first prototype in July 2015, a month after he had graduated from high school. He went on to establish a company for the device, Seijis Bridge LLC. The Seijis Bridge CEO later partnered with OSU senior Spencer Kleweno, now the companys chief financial officer.
Today, Spencer and I work on making the DiscJam a product that will create a social experience to help my brother and other people with disabilities better communicate through sound and physical activity, Dassise says.
Kleweno and Dassise connected when they participated in the Bend Venture Conference in October 2015. There was an opportunity for attendees to pitch an idea to other people at the conference. Kleweno says he was impressed with Dassises idea, and wanted to help. Hes now not only in charge of financials, he also is in charge of crafting pieces for the device on a 3-D printer. The two already had a lot in common because both are involved in OSUs Austin Entrepreneurship Program (AEP). Through AEP, business-minded students are mentored and taught strategies to help make their ideas come to life.
Dassise entered AEP in his freshman year, Kleweno in his junior year, and joining forces with Kleweno has created a special team with all the right skills and a product that can benefit a particular group and the general market, says Dale McCauley, program manager for AEP.
Theyre going to go on to do great things, McCauley says. Theyre two students that have just consistently impressed me.
Dassise and Kleweno didnt do it alone. They have pitched a wide range of groups to gain feedback.
Weve hit a lot of roadblocks along the way, says Kleweno, a finance major and also an athlete, who for two years played Division I soccer for the Beavers. People have said we dont have enough capital to do this. We dont have the knowledge to get this done, but weve worked on it.
He says the people at OSU were particularly helpful.
Theyve also had some success. They pocketed $1,000 after winning the OSU vs. UO Civil War Shark Tank competition in May 2016, an event sponsored by the UO and OSU entrepreneurship programs.
The team also forged a key connection during an event called Sport Up in May 2016, held at a Portland site of New York-based WeWork, which creates office settings that it charges startup companies membership fees to use.
At WeWork, Dassise connected with Mark Lieberman, chief startup officer at OSU and director of the OSU Advantage Accelerator/ Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network (RAIN) Corvallis. Advantage Accelerator helps entrepreneurs launch their ideas by providing them with tools and resources. Its funded by not only OSU but also RAIN, which is an Oregon consortium of government, higher education and the business community.
Lieberman says some people have something extra, and Dassise is one of them.
It goes back to this old argument in entrepreneurship: Are you born with it or can you learn it? Lieberman says. And Im in the latter school, that entrepreneurship can be taught, but you cant teach drive, and you cant teach fire in the belly, and Alex has those. Its like learning basketball. You can teach someone how to play. You can train them how to be an athlete, but unless they put the time and effort into it, they just arent going to be one.
Lieberman says Kleweno and Dassise form a wonderful team.
Isnt it wonderful to be part of a great team? he says. Its fantastic when you know you can count on others and complementary skills.
On Oct. 20, Advantage Accelerator students, including Dassise and Kleweno, will participate in one of the programs events, called Start-Up Showcase, formerly known as Demo Day, at Lasells Stewart Center. The two will be able to showcase their new piece of technology.
Advantage Accelerator Operations Manager Anna Walsh says she sees the Dassise and Kleweno during regular presentations updating progress on their product, and shes been impressed with the level of outreach theyre investing and with the product itself.
It could really be a product that could help people socialize, who are disabled or autistic, Walsh says. I dont know if theyre planning on turning this into their livelihoods, but I think its a real possibility for them.
Theyve already sold several beta models of the DiscJam, which is unusual for a burgeoning start-up, Walsh says. This coming October, Dassise and Kleweno are applying to be among the companies that are officially showcasing their product at the Bend Venture Conference, doing more than attending to network.
And, as for Seiji Dassise, the DiscJam has impacted his life already, Dassise says.
Its helped his confidence and helped him socially, he says.
He says the DiscJam may have made his brother feel sure enough of himself to take the bus on his own to 24-Hour Fitness. Dassise asked his brother what he likes the most about the DiscJam.
Seiji Dassise pointed to the words Stefan's DiscJam, printed on the device.
You like that? Dassise asks.
Yes, Seiji Dassise replies, and looks his brother in the eyes for just a moment and smiles.