The idea is to channel children's engagement and excitement from playing games into learning in fun and interactive ways while developing their social, emotional, cognitive and motor skills.
Working with occupational therapists, special education teachers and parents, the WonderTree team has developed games that are suitable for children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactive disorder and learning difficulties.
“We want to be the Google of special education and development. Our dream is to make special education, and development affordable, accessible and effective for every child of determination in the world,” co-founder and chief executive Muhammad Waqas says.
While video games can provide entertainment, they also have therapeutic benefits for children with cerebral palsy, says Sam John, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
Games that use motion sensors or virtual reality are especially helpful as part of physical therapy, he says. Certain video games can also enhance cognitive skills, including problem-solving, spatial awareness and strategic thinking.
Established in April 2016 in Karachi, Pakistan, WonderTree expanded to the UAE in February last year. It has an office in the Abu Dhabi Global Market and a smaller team in Dubai.
The idea for the business first came to Muhammad Usman, WonderTree's co-founder and chief technology officer, when he saw how his older brother, who is a person of determination, enjoyed playing a video game on his Xbox.
Mr Usman then teamed up with his neighbour, Mr Waqas, to launch the start-up eight years ago with “passion, grit and bootstrapping really hard”.
“We take the existing physiotherapy, educational and cognitive exercises that educators and parents are using in the daily life of children of determination and we gamify them using augmented reality to make them fun, engaging and interactive for the child,” Mr Waqas says.
The games are customised to make them as inclusive as possible and to meet the children's varying needs, he says.
The web-based games, which use artificial intelligence, require a laptop, webcam, an internet connection and a subscription to start playing.
They are developed based on established theories on education, as well as cognitive, socio-emotional and motor skills development, Mr Waqas says.
New and existing games are also developed or improved through feedback from an advisory board of medical experts and a community of users.
Mr Waqas says that WonderTree works with various institutions, including a research and pilot programme with the UAE's Mubadala Health. It has also been certified by Doha-based Mada, a non-profit organisation that aims to improve digital accessibility for people of determination, according to its website.
WonderTree also wrote a research paper with the Institute of Professional Psychology at Bahria University in Pakistan.
The start-up's name comes from the “wow factor or wonder” of being engaged in activities in an augmented reality, while the platform is similar to a “tree” that provides nurture for the children it helps, Mr Waqas says.
Its main customers include special education institutions and organisations that support children of determination, partnering with the likes of the UAE's Zayed Higher Organisation for People of Determination and Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority.
WonderTree “can really shine and make an impact” in children from the ages of four to 14 with mild to moderate conditions, Mr Waqas says.
“Any organisations or individuals dealing with this bracket of children of determination are our market.”
That includes specialised schools, schools with inclusive programmes, occupational therapy centres and parents of children with determination.
The subscription fee for WonderTree's games varies by market, with a base price of Dh3,000 per child annually in the UAE, Mr Waqas says.
That includes access to unlimited hours of games on the platform, technology support and a customised report on the child's developmental progress as they play the games.
In Pakistan, WonderTree's products are used in 45 schools across the country, with 2,500 active users, says Mr Waqas.
The start-up now has 800 users in seven schools and centres in the UAE, within a year of starting operations, with plans to reach out to more organisations.
The founders are focused on growth in the UAE, followed by an expansion into Saudi Arabia and other markets in the GCC.
They have big ambitions and want to expand their business-to-business reach in the Emirates while focusing on the business-to-consumer market in the US, where it will sell its products online to parents.
WonderTree will start operations in February in the US, where the business is registered in Delaware, followed by an expansion across North America, says Mr Waqas.
Having grown up in Pakistan, Mr Waqas and Mr Usman are also setting their sights on India and Bangladesh.
“We are taking it one step at a time but we want to achieve all this,” Mr Waqas says.
“Your dreams and ambitions should be scary and far-reaching and way bigger than you, but at the same time your feet should be on the ground and this is exactly what we're doing.”
Currently, the start-up's operations in Pakistan are profitable and it aims to break even in the UAE this year, says Mr Waqas.
WonderTree also plans to woo investors later this year to raise funds after it solidifies its position in the local market, he says.
Q&A with Muhammad Waqas, co-founder of WonderTree
Why is establishing a social impact business important to you?
This is an internal principle deeply ingrained in the ethos of our company. We believe in the concept of “good business”, where we operate and grow like any other ambitious business, generating revenue, raising funding and expanding.
However, simultaneously, we strive to create a positive impact on society, the economy and the world through our operations and products.
We aspire not only to practise good business but also to serve as a role model for this approach.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of operating your start-up?
The list could span 10 pages, but to summarise: Your company's success is tied to your personal growth. Investing in yourself (through personal development and learning new skills) is crucial.
Maintain the mindset of a lifelong learner. Cultivate a childlike curiosity as it is the best way to learn and stay motivated.
Self-improvement can be categorised into four key areas that essential for growth: Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Additionally, I have acquired functional skills such as accounting, project management, public speaking, communication and basic coding, among others. I am also currently learning Arabic to aid my business in the GCC.
How does your business differ from other game-based learning for children with disability?
What sets us apart from others is that we are one of the few solutions using augmented reality, body movement and facial interactions as input.
Among our competitors, we are the only product offering an online (browser-based) solution that is plug-and-play, meaning it requires no additional software or installation.
We operate games without the need for additional hardware, making us cost-effective and easy to use. This is achieved through our unique use of patent-pending artificial intelligence.
A provisional patent for this has been filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
If you had the chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would not make the mistakes I made and I would take advantage of the lessons I learnt earlier in my start-up journey, thus reducing the time it took me to reach this point.
However, it is paradoxical because I would not have learnt those things in the first place if I had not made the mistakes.
Did you set up the business at the right time for the market?
No, we set it up very early, when people did not even know the term augmented reality and the technology was very challenging and full of bugs. But now, I feel that the market is becoming more ready to adopt augmented reality, even treating it as a necessity.
Where do you see yourself and your business in five years?
In five years, we envision ourselves as one of the leaders in AR-based assistive technology worldwide.
We aim to be present in every school in the UAE and expand across the GCC market. Additionally, we aim to expand into the North American market, including the US and Canada.
We plan to establish a presence in every inclusive and special education school in Pakistan. Ultimately, we aim to affect the lives of at least 500,000 children of determination and their families.
If you could wave a magic wand and give yourself three wishes to ensure you attain Uber-like success what would those three things be?
We wish to learn and gain experience now that will guide us throughout our journey. We hope to always have sufficient funds to continue expanding and operating our business. And may everyone quickly become aware of the effectiveness of the work we are doing.