As a former special education teacher, and a mother of two, Shaleighne “Shay’’ Cantner is well acquainted with the deluge of paperwork required to get supportive, special-education services for children.
“I recognized how difficult it was for parents to move forward and get their children the help that they need,’’ said Cantner, the CEO of a startup called Engagement Solutions and an alumna who earned her Sixth-Year Degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from the Neag School in 2013.
“They often get caught up in red tape and are producing reems of documents, many that must be filled out by hand,’’ she said. “I am on a mission to offer a better, faster, more efficient and more streamlined system.’’
Special Education Impacts Substantial Population
During the 2019-2020 school year, 7.3 million American children—approximately 14% of those ages 3-21 enrolled in public schools–received special education services. The two most common diagnoses are learning disability and speech/language impairment.
Engagement Solutions is a cloud-based, mobile-friendly and multilingual platform that captures and stores personal information required for most enhanced-service applications. Currently there is no secure, central database for that information, leading to an often frustrating and duplicative application process. The company also plans to offer a ‘care concierge’ to help guide families in seeking appropriate services.
The platform would be especially useful for families with children who have complex special and medical needs, said Cantner. When up and running, Engagement Solutions will offer a tiered-subscription model.
Startup Is Gaining Traction
Engagement Solutions has already raised more than $30,000 through business grants and pitch competitions. Most recently, Cantner and her team participated in the Summer Fellowship bootcamp, sponsored by the School’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI). Engagement Solutions is one of five startups selected to compete in the School of Business’ pinnacle entrepreneurship challenge, the Wolff New Venture Competition, in October. The event offers a $20,000 grand prize.
“Being selected for the Wolff competition feels really good. To get the nod from a group of outside judges was extremely validating,’’ she said. “Summer Fellowship helped us to improve our pitch, tell our story cohesively and attractively, and make it interesting and compelling.’’
Cantner said the company benefitted from mentorship and new connections and took advantage of resources including accounting, legal and medical-record protection guidance.
“All the work that we’ve done to develop this plan and navigate wouldn’t have happened without Connecticut resources, including CCEI, the School of Business and CTNext,’’ she said. “Sometimes you hear a lot of complaints about Connecticut. As a startup entrepreneur I haven’t found them to be true. I see startups here that are thriving.’’
Pilot Program Starting Now
Engagement Solutions is currently piloting its program with its first provider and a circle of families. Currently, most of their clients are located in Connecticut.
“Our pilot provider has been more than willing to participate, having seen the barriers for their organization and their families,’’ she said. “From people who need services, the idea has been very well received.’’
The startup’s executive team brings experience in child development, educational leadership, healthcare operations and finance.
“The goal is to remove the ‘pain points’ and allow families time to do the things they like,’’ said Jeff Kong, an investor who has joined the Engagement Solutions team. “The reaction has been tremendous. People are very happy that we’re addressing this long-standing problem.’’
“As an early childhood educator, one of the most compelling reasons that drew me to the field is the power of early intervention,’’ Cantner said. “Studies show, and personal experience confirms, that when children receive intervention for special needs early in their life, we can impact the positive trajectory of their educational experience.’’
Engagement Solutions is one of five startups competing at the Wolff New Venture Competition on Monday, Oct. 25 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The winner will receive $20,000 toward their new venture. To learn more about the competition or to register to watch the live presentation online, please visit: https://ccei.uconn.edu/wolff-new-venture-competition/