Generation Start-Up: Why Elggo's mental health outreach focuses on schoolchildren

The Dubai-based education technology start-up aims to enter Saudi Arabia next year

Elggo founder Luma Makari, during a presentation at the DMCC Impact Scale-Up programme. Photo: C3
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In Lebanon, where challenges in the aftermath of the Beirut port blast and the Covid-19 pandemic are compounded by the country's financial meltdown, Luma Makari's work with migrant communities showed her a gap in mental health care for young people in schools.

Following the devastating explosion in August 2020, a mental health crisis tightened its grip on the city's residents, leaving children and youth particularly vulnerable.

Ms Makari — who had co-founded an education centre in Beirut for Syrian and Palestinian migrants in 2014 and obtained a BA degree in psychology from the American University of Beirut — saw the need for mental health awareness and education in schools.

Teachers, parents and children needed support to cope with the impact of two years of Covid-related social isolation and trauma following the blast that left more than 200 people dead.

Ms Makari teamed up with regional psychologists, researchers, clinicians and educators to create a mental health programme for classrooms. The pilot, titled Elgorithm, reached 12,000 pupils in 22 schools.

“The idea was to build something digital, scalable and had a system-level impact, with sustainable long term effects,” she says.

Last year, the business was selected to join the DMCC Impact Scale-Up Programme in partnership with Dubai-based accelerator C3 that aims to attract social and environmental start-ups to the UAE.

Rebranded Elggo, the start-up was incorporated as a company in the DMCC in August 2022, and in December, Ms Makari teamed up with co-founder Mirna Mneimneh, a sales and marketing executive focused on the education technology sector. The platform has signed on 10 schools in the UAE so far.

In 2019, the UAE unveiled the National Wellbeing Strategy 2031, a comprehensive 10-year plan aimed at further improving the quality of life, through about 90 projects to be implemented by government bodies. Among its goals is an improvement of the population's physical and mental health, social relationships, education and the efficiency of government services.

Elggo offers schools a programme for classrooms from Grade 1 to Grade 12, or K-12, in a one-hour lesson per month that is integrated into the curriculum.

Schoolteachers trained by Elggo guide the classroom, hosting videos and games that teach pupils skills and tools they can integrate into their daily life to improve their mental health and wellbeing. The programme draws on principles from mindfulness, positive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and evidence-based social and emotional learning.

Offered in Arabic and English, the programme aims to be culturally compatible for the region.

“We try to make it as playful and engaging as possible,” Ms Makari says.

“Ultimately, it's about having the ability to practise the skills to navigate mental health in daily life because challenges are inevitable and these tools make all the difference.

By having conversations in the classroom, you're inherently de-stigmatising mental health.
Luma Makari, co-founder of Dubai- based education technology start-up Elggo

“By having conversations in the classroom, you're inherently de-stigmatising mental health.”

Elggo has registered a 30 per cent improvement in pupils' wellbeing after administering the programme, according to its website.

Working on principles of mental health awareness, prevention and intervention, the programme can identify if a youngster requires immediate attention and is then referred to the school counsellor or an external psychiatrist, Ms Makari says.

Anxiety and depression have emerged as the biggest issues pupils face, exacerbated by the periods of social isolation during the pandemic, Ms Makari says.

Elggo's business-to-business (B2B) model offers schools an annual subscription fee.

It also offers the wellbeing programme and certified professional development courses for schoolteachers that cover classroom-based social and emotional learning tools for increasing the well-being of pupils.

The cost of the programme is roughly equal to the price of one textbook and is included in the school fees, typically ranging from $20 to $25 per pupil, Ms Makari says.

Demand for the programme has been driven by the UAE Ministry of Education's overall strategy to prioritise pupil wellbeing and mental health, making schools more receptive to the digital platform, she says.

On data privacy, Ms Makari says Elggo does not share individual information with the school administration but rather aggregated and anonymised data by class. Exceptions are high-priority cases that need to be referred for professional help.

Company profile

Name: Elggo
Started: August 2022
Founders: Luma Makari and Mirna Mneimneh
Based: Dubai, UAE
Sector: Education technology / health technology
Size: Four employees
Investment stage: Pre-seed

Asked about the risk of bullying when pupils are vulnerable about their mental health in classrooms, Ms Makari says the class time is reserved for general discussions whereas the individual interaction with the games and the digital platform is more personalised.

Elggo is currently working on a new artificial intelligence-enabled product that will customise each child's experience on the digital platform depending on his or her specific challenges.

Due to be released in August to coincide with the start of the new academic year, the new product will feature surveys and questionnaire to gauge each student's mental health challenges, Ms Makari says.

“We already have schools on a waiting list who want to join the first release of the minimum viable product,” she says.

While Elggo has paused its operations at schools to focus on the new product, the start-up expects to earn $600,000 in annual revenue for the 2023 fiscal year following its release, Ms Makari says, without providing information on current revenue.

Elggo, which has so far been bootstrapped by its founders, expects its growth to accelerate after the new product launch and is not seeking to raise immediate capital, Ms Makari says.

The start-up aims to expand further in the UAE by teaming up with school chains, continue working with independent schools and explore new markets, she said.

“We're looking at the region, especially the Gulf and we want Saudi Arabia to be the next market we enter by 2024-2025.

“In the next five years, we hope to see our platform become a leading resource for K-12 mental health support globally, with a wide range of products and services to meet the needs of pupils, parents and educators.”

Q&A with Elggo founders Luma Makari and Mirna Mneimneh

Who is your role model?

All pupils, teachers and parents that have gone through mental health challenges during the pandemic.

Why is setting up a business with social impact important to you?

We believe that operating under the core of social impact allows us to maximise our outcomes while addressing pressing social issues in a financially sustainable way. By leveraging the power of technology and scale, we can create impactful solutions that benefit both society and our business. Working towards a social mission of improving youth mental health has allowed us to work for more than just ourselves.

By aligning our values and goals with those of our customers and stakeholders, we can create a more just and equitable world while also achieving sustainable growth for our organisation.

What new skills have you learnt since launching your start-up?

We've been learning how to leverage artificial intelligence in psychology research to create a more personalised pupil UI [user interface] and maximise impact. Our focus on anonymity and data confidence ensures that we are able to provide the best user experience for our pupils while maintaining their privacy. Through our work, we have gained new skills in machine learning and data analysis, and are excited to continue to grow in this field.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

It increased the need for mental health support, particularly for K-12 pupils struggling with online learning and social isolation. This has created both challenges and opportunities for our business, as we work to meet the increased demand for our services while also adapting to the changing landscape of education and mental health.

How is your service different from other mental health platforms for youth in the region?

Our service differs from other platforms because we specifically focus on K-12 pupils, providing tailored resources and support for their unique needs. We also prioritise accessibility and affordability, making our platform available to youngsters from all backgrounds and providing personalised pathways for their overall well-being.

What changes in digital mental health care should patients expect in the next decade?

Patients can expect to see continued innovation and advancements … including the use of AI and machine learning to improve diagnosis and treatment, ease in accessibility and prevalence of telehealth services.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

We would start the journey earlier as the need for such a service is vital in building more resilient communities and nurturing wellness. We have learnt a lot along the way, and this experience has taught us the value of being proactive and staying ahead of the curve.

What is your next big dream?

Our next big dream is to continue growing our platform and expanding our impact while developing new products and services to meet the evolving needs of the mental health space with a focus on integrating system-level development and advancement.

Ultimately, we want to create a sustainable and scalable model for social impact in the mental health space across Mena.

Updated: April 10, 2023, 9:37 AM
Company profile

Name: Elggo
Started: August 2022
Founders: Luma Makari and Mirna Mneimneh
Based: Dubai, UAE
Sector: Education technology / health technology
Size: Four employees
Investment stage: Pre-seed