The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporters Edward Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Jose M. Rodriguez Jr., founder and CEO of Tasium, a Providence-based company that develops specialized clothing for people on the autism spectrum.
Q: Tell us about Tasium and the purpose of the clothing.
Rodriguez: Tasium is an apparel line that has fidget toys attached to the clothing so people don’t lose the toys, and they can have access to the toys in a discreet way. Fidget toys are known to improve productivity and decrease stress for people on the autism spectrum and those with ADHD. Fidget toys allow you to scratch that itch of fidgeting in a way that’s more productive.
Tasium sends one shirt and one fidget toy per order. It has a unique attachment, so you can interchange fidget toys. The shirts cost $25 each.
Q: What inspired you to form this company?
Rodriguez: My young brother, Joel M. Rodriguez, has autism, and I have been to every IEP (individualized education program) meeting with him since he was 7. He learns differently. I’ve been learning about autism and how I can best help him in the house. He has a lot of barriers he has to break down, so minimizing those has been my goal growing up. He’s one year younger than me — I’m 17 years old, and he’s 16. I was born in Providence and live in Woonsocket now.
Q: When did you launch the company and how did it come about?
Rodriguez: I created Tasium in January 2019. It officially became an LLC in November 2020. I am a senior at The Met School (The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, in Providence). During my four years there, I was looking at different career paths. I wanted to be a teacher, a psychologist, and then I said: What about the business field?
My school has an entrepreneurship program, E360. You have to apply to the class. A lot of people want to get in. They show you how to write a business plan and make a 60-second pitch. And one of the questions on the application is: What is your business idea?
Through my four years, most of my projects had been based on autism, and I wanted to do something with clothing. One day, I was in my room, and my little brother burst in looking for favorite fidget toy — one of those fidget cubes. He was anxiously saying “Have you seen it?” Then it hit me: I knew I wanted to create clothing with fidget toys attached to avoid losing them.
Q: Why did you name the company Tasium?
Rodriguez: I was struggling with what to name the company. So I took the letters in the word “autism” and scrambled them. Then I picked the one that sounded the most like a word. Tasium is autism scrambled.
Q: Tell us about how you won the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge that the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) held in October.
Rodriguez: It’s like “Shark Tank” for young entrepreneurs. At the end of the E360 program at The Met School, you do a two-minute pitch. It’s called the “Fish Bowl” because it’s not the “Shark Tank” yet. You do it in front of judges. They chose me to go to the NFTE competition.
It starts with thousands of participants from around the world. Three from your region move on, and I came in first place in the regionals. Then I was one of 30 in the nationals. It went down to 15, to the final three, and then I won. The prize was $12,000.
Q: What will you do with the prize money?
Rodriguez: I put the money toward building a website, and I worked with a manufacturer to create more shirts in bulk. Before, I made the shirts out of the entrepreneurship center at The Met, and homemade takes forever. Since the competition, I’ve been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work — getting intellectual property rights, getting it patented. There are things you have to do before you can flood the market. If it’s not patented, someone could take my idea.
I’ve been meeting with different schools and autism support organizations, and I should get my first batch of 120 Tasium T-shirts soon. I will donate some percentage of the shirts to each school with autism programs and get feedback on what they like and don’t like. The rest of the shirts will be sold. Pre-orders are available on the website.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
Rodriguez: One of my goals is to sponsor the Special Olympics. I also want to get this apparel to the market for families with people within the autism spectrum. I want to flood the market with Tasium T-shirts and then expand on it, too. We have fidget toys, but build off of that. I have a lot of cool designs in the works.