Generation Start-up: How Takestep is breaking stigmas of addiction and mental health

Egyptian HealthTech start-up is seeking $1 million in new funding round to expand in the GCC

The Takestep team, from left, Mohamed Abdallah, chief operating officer, Dr Mohamed Khedr, managing partner, Mohamed Khashaba, chief executive, and Ahmed Hossam, member of the board of advisers. Photo: Takestep
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Mohamed Khashaba, co-founder of Egypt-based start-up Takestep, first came up with the idea for the healthcare technology platform after a family member's long and expensive journey of treatment to cure him from drug addiction.

After grappling with addiction for seven years – including several stays at drug rehabilitation centres, enduring five relapse episodes and spending millions of Egyptian pounds – the relative has recovered and is a co-founder of the business.

The journey exposed the gaps in the treatment process, inspiring Mr Khashaba to start Takestep in 2018 to help those living with addiction, as well as their families or guardians.

The entrepreneur observed a need for addiction treatment centres with stricter medical supervision, an expanded capacity to cater to the higher proportion of female addicts and cheaper services that are inclusive, he says.

“The biggest barrier to seeking treatment is social stigma,” Mr Khashaba says. “They worry about what people will think of them in the neighbourhood, in the workplace, in social circles … social stigma is a global phenomenon.”

The online platform aims to connect the stakeholders of the treatment process with patients and their guardians, to help them take control of their recovery and avoid potential relapses.

“I remember the first time we knew that a family member was facing an addiction issue, we didn’t know where to go,” Mr Khashaba says.

“We couldn’t ask neighbours, colleagues or friends. We were alone in this journey, looking here and there.

“He entered a treatment facility for one year, then relapsed within 15 days after getting out. We felt it was a scam, that there was something wrong with the system.”

In recent years, the abuse of drugs – in particular, prescription medication – has become a growing problem in the wider Middle East.

For example, tramadol, an opiate used to treat moderate to severe pain, is known to be widely abused by addicts.

The use of Captagon, a dangerous amphetamine, has spread across the Middle East.

The Captagon trade in the Middle East grew exponentially in 2021 to more than $5 billion, posing an increasing health and security risk to the region, a 2022 report by the New Lines Institute said.

The research painted an alarming picture of the impact that booming Captagon production is having on the region.

“The Captagon trade is a rapidly growing illicit economy in the Middle East and Mediterranean,” said the report, written by analysts Caroline Rose and Alexander Soderholm.

War on Drugs: The Captagon Crisis

War on Drugs: Captagon Crisis

Takestep focuses on addiction and general psychiatry, offering services both to individual and corporate clients through web and mobile-based apps.

It offers round-the-clock support for addicts through individual consultations and long-term packages for recovery with licensed psychiatrists and psychologists specialising in different types of addictions, Mr Khashaba says.

The treatment plan also includes an “aftercare” phase to prevent relapses.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the start-up further expanded its offering, with its experts addressing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional eating, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Takestep also focuses on outreaches to rural areas where access to addiction-treatment centres and mental health services is limited and patients are often underserved, Mr Khashaba says.

In these areas, where internet connections are sometimes patchy, Takestep says it pays for outbound calls made to patients and accepts payments through various methods, including through Egyptian digital payments company Fawry.

Takestep has also signed B2B partnerships with companies seeking to offer mental health services to their employees at a discounted rate.

The biggest barrier to seeking treatment is social stigma
Mohamed Khashaba, co-founder of Takestep

Overall, sessions are priced anywhere from 70 Egyptian pounds ($2.30) to 200 pounds, depending on the type and duration of packages, he says.

Since its inception, Takestep has helped 32,000 patients across 11 countries in the region, Mr Khashaba says.

Currently, it's target customers are patients in rural areas, as well as the families of addicts – both relapsed or recovering – and women as they are often more open to seeking help than their male counterparts.

About 75 per cent of its patients are women as there are even fewer addiction treatment centres available to them due to social stigma, he says.

Takestep's business model is based on monetising the subscriptions of companies and individual patients.

Earning an annual revenue of about $50,000, the start-up is “making good money because there is a big gap in the market” as the number of patients exceeds the capacity of addiction treatment centres, Mr Khashaba says.

Patients and their families are also frustrated by frequent relapses following treatment and “want to try a new way and discover other ways of healing”, he says.

Demand for Takestep's services has grown from the highs recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic as tough economic conditions have led to an increase in mental health conditions such as depression, says Mr Khashaba.

Revenue is growing by 37 per cent and the number of active users is up 26 per cent on a monthly basis, he says.

Takestep's experts hold a minimum of master's degrees in their fields and are licensed by Egyptian health authorities to work in the country, according to the co-founder.

The platform also follows medical standards and regulations set by one of its co-founders who has more than 25 years of experience in the field of addiction treatment and has held various government positions in this medical area, Mr Khashaba says.

The Captagon crisis in the Middle East

The Captagon crisis in the Middle East

Looking ahead, Takestep intends to expand its operations in Egypt and enter other markets in the Gulf.

The start-up plans to raise $1 million in a new funding round and is currently in talks with venture capital firms focused on health technology, Mr Khashaba says.

It will use the funds to expand into the GCC and open its first in-person addiction treatment centre in Egypt.

The planned centre will be in a rural area and will operate a mixed model of in-person treatment for 28 days, followed by online “after care” in which patients can stay in touch with experts who supervised their recovery, Mr Khashaba says.

The start-up has raised about $500,000 from the founders and $180,000 from angel investors.

Venture capital funding in Egypt rose by 3.2 per cent annually in 2022 to $517 million, according to start-up data platform Magnitt. However, the number of deals fell by 3 per cent to 160 last year, from 165 in 2021.

Mr Kashaba called for more venture capital funding for HealthTech start-ups.

“Social stigma is our main problem, we need to raise awareness massively,” he says.

“There is also a need for better regulation of the online mental health start-ups sector.”

Company Profile

Name: Takestep
Started: March 2018
Founders: Mohamed Khashaba, Mohamed Abdallah, Mohamed Adel Wafiq and Ayman Taha
Based: Cairo, Egypt
Sector: health technology
Employees: 11 full time and 22 part time
Investment stage: pre-Series A

Q&A with Takestep co-founder Mohamed Khashaba

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

Setting up a business with social impact in the Mena region holds particular significance for us as founders of a mental health online platform. This region, with its unique economic challenges and underserved populations, requires focused attention to address the critical gaps in mental health support, characterised by limited resources, stigma and inadequate access to quality mental health services.

The business helps us in empowering vulnerable populations, promoting economic resilience and challenging stigma.

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

Running the business has helped me to learn about mental health advocacy, data analysis and insights, resilience and adaptability.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

The Covid-19 crisis has increased demand for mental health support, accelerated the shift to online services, sped up digital transformation, expanded our geographical reach and made funding opportunities and investments more competitive.

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

We offer 24/7 access to mental support, a flat rate for our services, 100 per cent medical supervision and easy access to our services thanks to our outbound call offering.

We use innovative tools that empower our service providers, we work as a team (psychiatrists and psychologists) and we offer … a virtual treatment facility.

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

I strongly believe that the next decade will see a significant shift towards more personalised and accessible mental health care, a reduction in the stigma surrounding mental health and increased access to care for those who live in rural or underserved areas.

We expect more integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning into mental health care.

We also see more emphasis on peer support and community building. Online platforms and social networks will provide patients with a safe space to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

Updated: June 25, 2023, 12:17 PM
Company Profile

Name: Takestep
Started: March 2018
Founders: Mohamed Khashaba, Mohamed Abdallah, Mohamed Adel Wafiq and Ayman Taha
Based: Cairo, Egypt
Sector: health technology
Employees: 11 full time and 22 part time
Investment stage: pre-Series A