Start-ups pitch mental health projects to win funding in Abu Dhabi

Ma'an initiative seeks to backs international and home-grown talent to explore new ways to improve mental health support

Dani Hakim, left, and Helen Hope started Safe Space, a free community mental health support group, in May last year. Pawan Singh / The National
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From mobile meditation apps to wearable mental fitness monitors, entrepreneurs pitched their projects for funding on Monday with the aim to improve Abu Dhabi's mental heath support.

International start-ups and established businesses with a community focus presented their work under the latest round of Ma’an social incubator and accelerator projects.

Successful applicants, selected from hundreds of hopefuls, win support from private sector investors to take their idea to the next level.

The UAE is taking great strides forward in the area of mental well-being

Allocated funding is entering the final selection process after a series of online pitches.

“This accelerator aims to bring the best start-ups from around the globe alongside local talent to address social challenges in Abu Dhabi,” said Sara Alhaj, director of social incubator and acceleration management at the Ma’an authority for social contribution,

“This first round will be focused on mental well-being. The UAE is taking great strides forward in the area of mental well-being and we aspire to have the start ups of today paving the way for a better future for everyone.”

A pool of more than 330 applicants was whittled down to 10 to share seed funding of Dh2 million to launch their social enterprise.

Many communities affected by Covid-19 have experienced unprecedented mental health challenges, prompting investment into projects focused on supporting existing services.

Since its launch in February last year, the initiative aims to encourage innovation among non-profit and charitable organisations.

Social impact bonds allow investors to choose a project in which to tackle contemporary community issues, with mental health the focus for the latest round of funding.

Healium, a wearable device that monitors mental fitness, was one pitch on show

Linked to virtual reality goggles, the device monitors brain activity and encourages users to self-regulate brain pattens when under stress.

The experience can be tailored to provide a focused or calm environment via the visual headset.

The device has been peer reviewed in three health journals, with 12 other trials under way to explore further solutions.

Users pay for a subscription service, which is seen as a drug-less solution to mental health issues.

LivNao was another project that works on behaviour prompts by using smart phone data to assess mental health and is linked to health insurance.

“The initiative is aimed at employers who want to improve the psychological health of workers,” said founder and chief executive Daniel Leung.

“The app monitors productivity and encourages time out to exercise or get fresh air if the user’s “mental health spore” drops below a certain level from information taken from a questionnaire.”

Its developers used 65 million data points during research across 15 years in the US.

Customers are charged from $6-$20 a month, depending on volume of usage.

A home-grown success story pitched on Monday was Tawazon, a meditation and mindfulness app purpose built for the Arab world in Abu Dhabi.

It was ranked by Apple as one of the most popular in the UAE in October.

The app encourages kindness, compassion and social awareness to improve feel-good behaviour.

For just 3-5 minutes a day, the app’s Palestinian developers promise it can reduce implicit bias, healthcare costs and distraction, while improving school achievement in children and developing a strong sense of purpose and increased productivity.

Tali digital therapeutics was developed in Melbourne Australia to test and treat attention deficit disorder in children via an online game.

The technology was patented in the US and Japan and has thousands of users in Australia.

Some 136 million children are understood to have the condition, with Tali a non-medicinal approach to tackle a global issue.

It emerged from 25 years of academic research in Australia for children aged 4-7 with cognitive tasks to develop a real time profile of the user.

“Training programmes of 20 minute sessions adapt to a child’s progressive strengths and with development of a child’s attention capabilities monitored online,” said Alex Barty, Tali’s business development director.

“It can flag issues to healthcare providers so appropriate treatment can be provided.

“Thousands of children have taken part so far, with about 80 per cent of users seeing improvements in behaviour.”

Another initiative came from Dubai-based Dani Hakim, 37, who developed Safe Space alongside her business partner Helen Hope. The service offers free mental health counselling either online or in person and is expanding to cover Abu Dhabi. They submitted a business plan to apply for funding from Ma’an.

Ten finalists will join the incubator programme, receive funding and undergo compulsory attendance to class-led intensive learning sessions to develop their ideas further.