Ph.D. Student Awarded $1M for Startup

by | Jul 2, 2024 | Alumni Achievers, Health

As a single mother of a child with autism, Antoinette Banks ’22 grappled with understanding the available options and services while trying to support her daughter through seemingly insurmountable learning and developmental hurdles. Recognizing that other families were encountering the same struggles, she resolved to take action. 

Over the past several years, she has been furthering her education and developing a parent-centric app utilizing predictive artificial intelligence to optimize existing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, for children diagnosed with disabilities. In fall 2023, Banks, now a doctoral student at the UC Davis School of Education, received $1 million through the Pharrell Williams Black Ambition Prize to augment her efforts. 

“For too long, Black and Brown children with learning differences have been overlooked and marginalized,” said Banks. “Winning this $1 million prize not only puts a spotlight on our children but also sparks deeper conversations about addressing the challenges in special education. As the founder and CEO, I am profoundly grateful to Black Ambition for their belief in me and for breaking down barriers.”

Screenshot from Punnett Farms

Antoinette Banks with her daughter, Nevaeh (Courtesy)

This recent accolade adds to Banks’ string of achievements. In 2021, she received $150,000 from the New Schools Venture Fund, along with a $100,000 award as a Yass Prize Quarterfinalist for her Expert IEP app. Additionally, she secured another financial award in the Social Entrepreneurship category of the 2021 Big Bang! competition sponsored by the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UC Davis. Last year, Banks also earned a Ford Fellowship for her research. 

Before returning to academia, Banks worked as an autism outreach director at the nonprofit Hope So Bright in Southern California, where she provided advocacy and support services to families in similar situations to her own. There, one of her clients encouraged her to go back to school.

Banks earned an associate degree from Los Angeles City College and then discovered UC Davis. She recognized the resources available there as well as the MIND Institute’s services for students with autism. She earned her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and was selected as a McNair Scholar.

During her time at UC Davis, Banks seized opportunities to further her advocacy and business goals. Working in Dr. Yuko Munakata’s Cognition in Context lab at the Center for Mind and Brain, she employed machine learning methods to conduct a meta-analysis on the relationships between specific parental support strategies and cognitive control development. She co-authored a paper on potential relationships for executive function development based on three parenting behaviors — cognitive support, emotional support, and autonomy. Those findings helped enhance the Expert IEP app.

Now pursuing her Ph.D. in the UC Davis School of Education, Banks continues to develop Expert IEP, which she described as the first IEP optimization app for families. She emphasized its role in parental advocacy, agency, community engagement, and IEP goal optimization for students in special education. Among its features, the app’s predictive AI evaluates written IEPs to determine the effectiveness of proposed goals.

“I think Expert IEP gets people with learning differences on the map and thought about in ways that they haven’t been before,” Banks said.