Episode 1: Creating Tech to Enable Independence - Part 1

Episode Summary

Part 1: Dr. Mary Goldberg chats with Steve Sutter, President of CreateAbility Concepts, Inc.. Listen to how Steve's drive and persistence to stay true to his mission of building technology to make independence possible has made an impact on people wanting to live independently in their homes and what it took to get there.

Episode Notes

Host: Dr. Mary Goldberg, Co-Director of the IMPACT Center at the University of Pittsburgh
Guest: Steve Sutter, President of CreateAbility Concepts, Inc.

CreateAbility Concepts, Inc. |  Website, Email

IMPACT Center | WebsiteFacebookLinkedInTwitter

Full Episode Transcript | PDF 

02:47 From the corporate world to starting his own business.
04:33 What problem needed to be solved?
07:53 How the solution would help the stakeholders; Company values.
09:32 Focus groups; Engaging the community; Gap analysis and Mini Release Cycles. 
12:00 Impact of COVID-19 on the company and stakeholder engagement.
13:48 Benefits and COVID-19
15:50 Saboteurs 
18:05 Competitors
21:52 What is coming up in Episode 2?

Episode Transcription

Mary Goldberg:
The IMPACT Center at the University of Pittsburgh supported by the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research proudly present ImpacTech. Today's episode is creating tech to enable independence with our guest Stephen Sutter the founder and president of creative ability Inc. Recorded remotely from my soundproof bedroom closet in Pittsburgh, PA, this is your host Mary Goldberg and our very first episode in the 2021 ImpacTech podcast series. 

Mary Goldberg:
Happy 2021 and Happy New Year Steve. Doesn't that feel great to say?

Stephen Sutter: 
Oh, it sure does.

Mary Goldberg:
We are thrilled to have you as our first guest of ImpacTech. You know, what really resonated with the team is your drive and persistence to stay true to your mission of building technology to make independence possible.

The kind of impact the type of technology that your group develops is immense. For example, enabling people with intellectual disabilities to work and live independently in their homes. You know, without these technologies, it's clear the clients you serve may need to live with family members, which obviously would increase their reliance on others, and perhaps even the family members ability to work or manage other responsibilities. So in this case the impact seems to be not only on the person with a disability, but their family, the company they work for, and so on. Could you please fill in the gaps for our listeners by introducing yourself and Create Ability? And thank you by the way for the incredible work that you do. 

Stephen Sutter: 
Well, I'm married to my best friend and between the two of us we have four kids, six grandkids and two more on the way. I'm an electrical engineer from Purdue and worked at Hewlett Packard for 18 years where I thought I would eventually retire from but I had been a volunteer for many years helping people with special needs people with disabilities and really got to know them at a really intimate way. Experienced their lives, saw their needs experience their needs and felt I had to jump in and help them in some deeper way.

It makes a lot of sense. It's certainly is a big leap, though, being that that was in general, more of a volunteer responsibility. What made you make the leap from the corporate world to starting your own business, and how did you know that these were problems that were worth tackling?

Stephen Sutter: 
Great questions. So one day I'm going off to work and I have this divine intervention, where I look at my name tag and I have no idea why I would want to do that for a living. And, you know, really, who am I. I had this real identity crisis moment and for three weeks really struggled with realizing this was going to be the end of my career at HP. Something I define myself by, I realize that's backwards, right now, but because I had great kids and a wife and everything, but I defined myself in my position and that'll get fixed really quickly by saying nope that's over.

So I got this Venn diagram vision of three overlapping circles. One of them, helping people with special needs another one using technology and the third overlapping ring was in a home or workplace environment and where those three rings overlapped, and this is 1997, there wasn't anything on the on the internet. There was no Google back then, but when you ask Jeeves with your dial up modem, it would say nothing.

There is nothing that came up and I really struggled with what does this mean, and finally found that meaning found the what it all meant in this area of assistive technology to help people with special needs in these domains.

Mary Goldberg: 
That's interesting. So you sort of found a niche, I guess. Do you describe this this problem that you were encountering when you were searching and not coming up with an ideal solution?


Stephen Sutter: 
Yeah, so fast forwarding a few years where I really was struggling to find out what is it and what should be and what should it be, we sort of developing technology to help in task, prompting in a workplace or help them understand what there is to do and how to do that and we found that unfortunately about 50% of the time, while it takes a village to set someone up in a position at a workplace or in a group home or D based living environment, it could get all get derailed about 50% of the time, because of some undocumented behavioral health issue. 

There's lots of fear, anxiety, etc. going on in the minds of people with special needs. And so we found that people with intellectual disabilities, who also have challenging behaviors, lack those self regulation skills and we found that staff often, not always, but often lack the self regulation and the co-regulation skills that would help both them and the person they serve. And that resulted in not only not having these core competencies being built, but both sides experienced this self dysregulation and co-dysregulation issue.

For example, even in the middle of COVID-19, people with special needs would sometimes say that they had to go to the emergency room. Really what they were doing was acting out in a way that they wanted to get a re-deal. You know, they didn't like their current setting their situation or they were bored or scared, with the isolation and they thought, I'll just push the panic button. The many times we found it was the staff that somehow contributed to their dysregulation, this feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do it. And this created vicious cycles that disrupted the whole environment and whereas ER certainly in the middle of COVID was not the right place to go, it seemed like the right thing to do for the individual. So reframing that if we could develop tools that could help them do their own self regulation and certainly co-regulation between this dyad of the person, the staff member and the person served it would really help.

Mary Goldberg: 
It sounds like the idea then, in terms of serving individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities and people with traumatic brain injury, and those that care for them came first, and then the business. Is that about right?

Stephen Sutter: 
That's correct.

Mary Goldberg: 
Awesome, and I see that it is also your anniversary by the way. I saw that Create Ability is now in its 20th year. It's pretty incredible, that's some nice longevity and I'm sure you've experienced a lot of lessons learned and curious, and I'm sure our listeners will be also, could you comment a bit on the key to both your personal and company success? And in that, I guess I'm particularly interested in your qualities and your company's values and so on.


Stephen Sutter: 
Thank you for the anniversary announcement. Yeah, it's really exciting. We believe that we can really help people flourish and that's not always a word that's used with people with intellectual disabilities. They might be in a state where they're trying to make do or just survive the moment, but we found we could actually help them flourish by understanding what their goals and their dreams are and finding the right mix of products as well as people in the lives that can help them and then performing evidence based research via grants through NIDILRR, the Institutes of Health and other agencies, we've been able to bring these products to market. But in that process was key for us was getting the involvement of everyone with the individual served. We meet with them, we talked with them, they're present when they test the products. When they support the products, it's, it has to be very, very much an involvement by the whole team and we approach everything with the team approach. In fact, our employees are called team members not employees.

Mary Goldberg: 
That's awesome. How many team members, then do you have?

Stephen Sutter: 
Six full time and eight part time.

Mary Goldberg: 
Okay, and when you get out there, then and engage your stakeholders and use this this team approach, are you calling on a particular group of stakeholders are you doing focus groups? How do you connect with the greater community?

Stephen Sutter: 
You're right, focus groups are an excellent way to really help each person present, make sure that they're heard. So we use a, an approach where everyone gets to talk, everyone gets to vote and every vote counts equally on what features and functions, what the user experience is supposed to be, and that's after first of course carving out, where is the gap. What is the gap analysis here between the way things are and the way things should be or could be. So, focus groups are the first part. The second part is that we use multiple cycles of development and test so you don't want to avoid going away in the ivory tower for nine months or something and then coming out and saying voila and everyone looks at us like, underwhelmed so or missed it.

So, by coming up with these mini release cycles, as long as everyone buys into that. Yeah, we're not we're not developing every aspect yet, but bite sized chunks of features and functionality and user experience, experience enhancements, we're able to really avoid not drifting too far off track in case we missed something. So we really have high involvement with our, our target consumer and then realizing you know we've heard the word disruptive technology, you know, used a lot. Actually this this target market does not want disruption. They want you to dovetail your new solution neatly into their current workflow. And yes, you may result in a business cycle change down the road, but you don't want to lead with that. You want to easily dovetail then integrate into their current processes and help them.

Mary Goldberg: 
Yeah, it sounds like your connection to the community is such a huge driver and predictor of your success. I'm curious how in these strange COVID-19 times how your whole process of this community connection and stakeholder engagement was impacted.

Stephen Sutter: 
In a very first dramatic and then fun way. So turns out that the pandemic is actually accelerated, adoption of technology by almost seven years. So just environments we got a seven year advancement and that's because it wasn't really on their game plan to adopt some of the technology, but they had to, there wasn't any other options available for remotely supporting the person served. But if we would have pushed it the normal way or normal technology evolution and adoptions cycles, it would have taken about seven years according to some data that was just released.

So internally we were able to evolve from oh my gosh, we've had huge cancellations of projects, delayed orders. Let's hunker down. Let's survive the storm. Let's control costs, you know, all those kind of things. And then one day woke up and realized, oh, we got this all wrong COVID-19 actually provides a unique opportunity that could drive business to our company. It's not something to be feared at all. It's, it's an issue and it's a serious issue, and many people have lost their lives. And so we don't want to celebrate that, but by looking at it differently from a business perspective, how we could drive business to us, that changed everything.

Mary Goldberg: 
Do you think that's true for all of your stakeholders, or all of the beneficiaries of your technologies and and if so, who are those subgroups typically?

Stephen Sutter: 
So certainly, it turns out that isolation, and this was necessary, to help people stay safe and stay healthy, many people with intellectual disabilities had to be isolated. And it turns out that actually exacerbated some of these behavioral health issues and many of them acted out as a natural outcome of that isolation. So it's really helped them by video chats, using avatar based technology that would help relay messages and interact with them as a virtual staff member. 

It helped direct support professionals as well in being able to stay safe and get still stay connected with the person that's serving. Families, so people with intellectual disabilities, once that individual had moved out into some community based living system, it was really hard on them to bring that person back. You know that person had experienced independence for the first time and didn't want to necessarily be back in home in a home environment again and that caused some conflict. So anything we can do to maintain their preferred residence and yet keep them safe was what we want to do. Certainly the agencies who support people with intellectual disabilities were benefit benefited by this and then the funding organizations, the counties, the regions state and various countries as well have opted in, and funding this kind of technology.

Mary Goldberg: 
To that end it seems like a big win for everyone with most of your stakeholders very much on board or even, you know, resulting in some kind of uptick of sales. I'm curious, are there any saboteurs in this process among your stakeholder group?

Stephen Sutter: 
Yes, and I think this is transferable to anyone listening, whatever market you're in, is that the status quo is the human tendency to avoid change and having to do more, but having to do more with less. You know, just that tendency to do that so that will always be someone pumping the brakes, who just doesn't feel that they're included into the plan. And that's why it's really important to involve everyone all the stakeholders, make sure everyone has a voice. Because that, you know, if you look at that disc profile approach of personalities, I don't know if you subscribe to that philosophy, if the S's are kingpins. I mean, they are the supporter. They are the front Line support people and yet may not feel that they have a voice and so we need to make sure that they have one and use it and help them advocate for themselves, so that they can really be heard because they would naturally want to pump the brakes on changes because they are not brought into the process.

So that was key. So I didn't think of them so much as a saboteur, but it certainly it wasn't helping in the process, sometimes. And it turned out it was our fault, not theirs. Anytime that we didn't include them early and often we usually paid for it downstream.

Mary Goldberg: 
Nice, so it seems like having a general understanding of who all of your stakeholders are and how they I guess interface with you both pros and cons have been really key to your process.

Stephen Sutter: 

Mary Goldberg: 
Well, assuming that Create Ability has had this level of success through COVID-19 and then there's really been such a demand for your products and services, I'm assuming any companies that you might view as competitors must have also, I'm curious how Create Ability differentiates itself among this this group of competitors.


Stephen Sutter: 
Right. Well, the biggest differentiation actually, you know, there's a lot of complexities in competitive analysis and you can you can spend a lot of time and energy and money, trying to do that. We found the real key is to find out what the competition won't do or what the competition can't do and just do those things. So those are the best differentiators that I think can help some of our listeners who are struggling with trying to come up with feature to feature or price, price competitive solutions.

You can actually simplify your life and sleep better, but just doing what they won't do or what they can't do. And in our market that was really around this evidence based research. A lot of the other competitive approaches were just great ideas that have never really been tested and proven a lot of them tried to use kind of a text messaging therapy methods or therapist, you could call up when you need them. But this population of people with intellectual disabilities when they're off center, they are not as able to do things technically as they might normally be and I think you know I struggled with that myself when I'm really frustrated about something. Adding complexity technical complexity is very off putting and actually increases my by dysregulation.

So we wanted to have this avatar approach that was readily available that could be there many not we're not robo psychologists. We're just trying to give them skills and I must first say that we've been working with Dr. Julie Brown to develop the skills system that we've taken together. She's been a key consultant in this project and made it into an app form with tools that would help the individual and their supports be able to regulate better and it's 90 different skills that you can apply to the current situation you're in right now like conflicts with a roommate. Something off with a co worker instead of that normally resulting in reacting to urges or negative thoughts. This gives you some skills that you can apply right now to the situation to better keep your actions in alignment with your goals.

Mary Goldberg: 
You're saying when you're coming up with these different scenarios and some of the examples, even then that you just provided in your description now, do you have a particular customer archetype or persona in mind?

Stephen Sutter: 
Well, we found that if we tried to use the last project we did and then dust off that because we haven't looked at it nine months and dusted off and use that as a starting point that we missed something. We actually found that we had to start out with, let's start out with the basis of not make assumptions, verify assumptions and, you know, we would certainly have some assumptions. But let's verify and validate those before going further which really gets into probably as a commercial for the next podcast but is the importance of this business case.

Mary Goldberg: 
I couldn't have queued it better myself. Yeah, that's absolutely right and we can't wait to learn a little bit more about how you put this quote, action plan, into place and you know all the little keys to your sustainable success, this has been really great and I really appreciate your time and insights and know, our listeners will be able to learn from your experiences. Could you please share where our listeners can learn more about Create Ability?


Stephen Sutter: 
You bet. Our website is and you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or email me directly at You could also reach me directly, you know, my phone number 317-777-0356

Mary Goldberg: 
Excellent. Thanks again! So on the episode, you will hear how Steve executed his action plan from products to market and how he thinks a little differently about planning ahead, prospecting and incorporating sustainability from the beginning. Until then keep making a positive impact in whatever you do. Take care and stay healthy.


A quick note from our sponsors. IMPACT initiatives are being developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DPKT0002). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). IMPACT initiatives do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, or HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government and the same goes for the University of Pittsburgh. We’d like to thank our ImpacTech guests and our production team from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Michelle Zorrilla from the Department of Rehab Science and Technology, Natalie Vazquez and Dr. Marie Norman from the Idea Lab at the Institute from Clinical Research Education.