USA Today: Autism non-profit leverages tech, start-up model

USA Today: Autism non-profit leverages tech, start-up model

A trio of unlikely business partners — pro wrestlerMick Foley, former football great Tiki Barber and physician Julian Maha — settled on stage before a standing-room-only crowd in New Orleans.

What brought them together at the Collision tech conference in April was a common goal: To help families touched by autism through new technology and philanthropy.

KultureCity, the nonprofit Maha founded in early 2014, is the intersection of their goal. TheBirmingham, Ala.-based organization is trying to reshape the non-profit business model, operating in part as an incubator to help launch several businesses that emphasize the hiring of autistic individuals.

Rather than focus on fundraising, Maha has focused on partnerships with big tech companies and celebrity endorsements. Its next one: a partnership with the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

"It's a passion project and an academic project in applying a start-up model," says the eternally effusive Maha, an emergency medicine physician whose 8-year-old son, Abram, has autism. He and wife Michele, a pediatrician, also have a 5-year-old son.

"We want to be known as the nonprofit that reinvented the category — not only from the model perspective, but as a nonprofit that lets impact drive our mission, not donations," he says.

Former WWE star Foley was touring the country in a one-man show last year, when his autistic son Nicky, 15, jumped onstage in Orlando and performed a drum solo. The tour de force caught the attention of Maha, who flew to Baltimore to enlist Foley's help.

“I became an accidental advocate for parents of autistic children,” recalls Foley, who signed on. “I want to reach people and spread the word. I want to let parents know that they are not alone.”

Plenty have liked what they see of KultureCity. Last year, Microsoft selected KultureCity as one of the top-10 non-profits in the U.S. and gave it $50,000 in funding. The strategic partnership could lead to more contributions and product donations.

Drowning prevention kit

The first of KultureCity's "social good" products is lifeBOKS, a free kit for autistic families to help prevent autistic children from wandering-related accidents. Drowning is the leading cause of death in autistic children under the age of 8. lifeBOKS contains a BlueTooth tracking bracelet, a QR-code shoe tag, wireless door alarms, and safety tattoo for identification. So far, the kit has prevented 36 drownings.

A sensory initiative, KultureCity's second product, includes noise-sensitive headphones.

“The dude has tons of energy,” says Rick Dow, president of Dojo Group, an advertising and marketing agency, and part-time chief marketing officer at Puro Sound Labs. Puro, a headphone company that wants to prevent hearing loss for consumers, this year struck a partnership with KultureCity to get its headphones to autistic children.

Next up: KC Fit, an initiative to merge philanthropy, tech and physical therapy, starting at the New York City Marathon in November.

"On the surface, KultureCity is about the passion of its founders," says Barber, a formerAll-Pro running back with the New York Giants. His best friend's son is autistic. "The innovative and tangible ways that partners are brought into the fold impresses me. It's one thing to raise money, and fund research and studies, It's quite another to impact everyday lives."

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