Interview With Gayane Hovhannisyan , Founder and CEO at Noomee
Did you know that 1 in 54 children actually in the United States is diagnosed with autism. 1% of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder – over 75,000,000 people.
After working for more than a decade with children of special needs, Gayane Hovhannisyan, CEO & Co-Founder of noomee realised those kids who needs the most help, are struggling with shortage of materials and online learning tools. It was time when Gayane decided to combine occupational therapy and technology, to provide better educational tools for the children in needs.
In this Episode of HyeTech Minds, I discuss with Gayane her startup journey and the reasons that brought her to the entrepreneurial world. She talks about noomee that helps children with autism and those who have difficulties in organizing their routine to become more independent in their daily life activities.
In our conversation, we also share ideas on the Armenian startup ecosystem, and the ways it would be possible to expand investment in tech and innovation ecosystems.
Gayane is the CEO & Co-Founder at noomee. Since 2008 Gayane has worked as an occupational therapist helping children with autism and limited abilities, to manage their daily life activities.
Narine: Hey Gayane, Welcome to HyeTech Minds. How’re you doing? How’s it in Yerevan?
Gayane: Hi, Narine. Thank you for hosting me. It’s good here. Very nice weather.
Narine: It’s awesome.
It’s your first stop at HyeTech Minds, so can you give us a little bit of an introduction of yourself, who you are, and how you got into the startup world?
Gayane: I’m an occupational therapist, Since 2006 working with special needs children, mostly with children with an autism spectrum disorder. That’s how I started. I became a member of a startup community.
Narine: So, Gayane you’re the Co-founder of Noomee, which is a Mobile app that helps children with ASD(Autism Spectrum Disorder ) and those who have difficulties in organizing their routine to become more independent in their daily life activities.
That’s a very specific industry.
I’m curious to know what is the story behind Noomee? How did you come up with this idea?
Gayane: Let me give you a brief intro. So it depends on the child’s needs. There are a certain amount of skills that children need to have at a certain age. It’s like cognitive, emotional, physical sight. For example, being able to take out a dress when the child is three years old, and etc. Depends on the child’s abilities and disabilities, we therapists check, if a child, let’s say four years old, but has the development of three years old, so we go back and starting to teach them to develop skills, cognitive, physical mental skills for the certain age, and, but each child’s needs individual approach, especially for autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
There is the age that if you know 10 autistic kids, it means you know, 10 autistic kids, which we cannot say for the other disorders. And imagine that the therapist creates all working materials manually.
A couple of years ago, when I was preparing for Monday’s half an hour session, I realized that I spent all my weekends preparing those materials, I started to look for online tools. Because it’s the 21st century there should be online tools, couldn’t find and after finding out that it’s not only my problem that my colleagues all over the world as the same problem, I decided that it’s time to combine therapy, occupational therapy and technology, and which was actually also like my dream to have a professional therapy and business.
So that’s how Noomee was born.
Narine: By the way, what does Noomee mean? Is there a meaning?
Gayane: Yes, it’s a new meaning, in a tad this way. Because every person has the ability and potential to develop certain skills. Just for some of them. It requires a bit longer time. So we help them to discover a new way to go. That’s how we call noomee.
Narine: So you said you are therapists yourself? Who else is included in your team? How many therapists are currently working for Noomee?
Gayane: Now, sure, we have a group of therapists. It’s not only me, me, and my co-founder every now we go for a professional therapist. Just Elena has off a second profession, marketing, and PR. She’s responsible on your part.
And we also have an advisory group of therapists who are not only professional therapists, but behavioral therapists, psychologists, speech therapists. So we try to combine all the therapies in one place.
But still at this point, in noomee, we highlight only a professional therapy methodology, but in long term, it should be for any type of therapist.
Narine: You know when you’re building a healthcare-related app, there should be research- based. Is noomee research-based? What type of research have you done before launching it?
Gayane: Yes, it’s based on research. So we started with research with therapies that we need to research with children, how it’s working, the illustrations, photos, the functionality, everything.
Then the final one we did under the program of European Master of Science in a question therapy and showed how we knew we have to develop skills for children with an autism spectrum disorder. And three, four months ago, at the end of 2020, we got scientific approval for five universities. That’s actually huge.
Narine: For example, 1 in 54 children actually in the United States is diagnosed with autism. This means there are a lot of children with ASD.
Providing those children with learning life skills can be critically important to continue their normal routine.
So, what are some of the skills you’re providing children to help them to be more self-independent?
Gayane: So occupational therapists, first of all, concentrate on activities of daily living, because it’s the essential part for being independent, self-dependent.
So the first part with noomee, we teach to develop skills for daily life activities, starting for from washing hands, going to the toilet, brushing teeth, till they make like whatever we do on our daily basis, okay, then the second, it helps to develop communication and behavioral skills, another important thing that children need to communicate and behave to be able to live independently.
And when we concentrate on those two parts.
Narine: Are you also working with parents or educators?
Gayane: Yes, without educators or therapists, it cannot be done.
Actually, like when we did research and tried to understand what type of digital tools there are in the market, most of the fillers like, let’s say, 97% of apps, digital tools are concentrated only on parents.
But without professional support, parents cannot continue because they don’t have that background. They don’t have enough time. They need professional support. So with noomee we connect with targets, parents, and therapists. And at this point, it is the only tool, almost the only one because maybe every day, we develop the one that concentrates on both parts, therapists, and parents.
Narine: Gayane, is Noomee free? Or users need to pay to get access to its features?
Gayane: It’s free for one month. So we provide a one-month free trial and after it is a subscription-based on the country. And based on the packages, it’s from 15 to $40 per month.
Narine: You want to say noomee can be used in other countries, as well?
Gayane: So at this point, we have noomee in three languages, Armenian, Russian and English.
Most of the users are now from Armenia. But with zero marketing, through advertisement, we have more than 1000 users. And we already have cooperation with USA-based rehabilitation centers and therapists.
So we started to get users from the United States.
Narine: Unfortunately, the United States is among the top countries with the height rate of autistic children in the world. it was estimated that around 222 per 10,000 children in the United States had autism.
Gayane: Unfortunately, yes. And what is interesting, when we look at the statistics, the World Health Organization, estimated one in 160 children.
But, in the United States, it is three times more than one in 54 children. So there are many types of research why it is like that, but still what we have? And children need support?
Narine: Is there any explanation why the United States has the highest rate of children with ASD?
Gayane: Officially No, they’re just hypotheses.
The diagnosis is more developed, they’re more children, just the procedure is a bit different than in other countries. This is a hypothesis. But actually, nobody knows.
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Narine: I think the older generation has some skepticism towards technology. And it’s probably norma
Narine: I think they know, they just down voice it.
Gayane: yes, they know
Narine: I think technology opens new perspectives and opportunities for children with ASD to learn and get necessary skills.
With E-Learning, gamification, virtual reality there are more opportunities for those children to get knowledge and skills, practice and get access to educational materials that they need.
What are some of the technology tools you’re integrating into your app in order to make the learning process more effective?
Gayane: The methodology behind noomee is based on occupational therapy. So we try to use technology for making more affordable therapy for children and for therapies.
And within this technology, we use machine learning in some features of Numi to make it more useful and productive for users, doesn’t matter where users are therapists or parents, children.
Narine: How does noomee work? Once you downloaded noomee on your phone, what happens next?
Gayane: Very good question.
Some people download the app from the iOS or Android platforms. They registered and after it depends on the child’s IQ level, we provide templates. But still parents or therapists can customize it. So make it more customizable for children.
And parents set up the function of what the child is doing on a daily basis, like waking up at eight o’clock, going to school, and so on. And then there is a parent part and child part that they provide an application to the child and they repeat what you’re saying.
What is interesting for kids with autism spectrum disorder, it is very essential to teach them with pictures with illustrations with visual shadows, because most of them as most of the people we learn through by watching are visual and it’s helping children with autism, because they have communication and behavioral issues. It is the first part that we have therapists helping them to develop certain skills.
So in noomee, we show illustrations step by step. What they need to do, like washing cans, can consist of up to 10 steps like open the door, go to the bathroom and open the door.
Narine: Basic life skills?
Gayane: Yes, basic life skills.
But for those who already have those basic skills, we’re going to the level up and we teach them communication behavioral skills like how to behave in a market, how to go shopping if the child has negative behavior, why they should have behaved like this like we’re offering alternative behaviors.
Narine: What about age limitations?
Gayane: We recommend children from three years old, up to 18. And as it’s customizable so it’s more affordable for parents or therapists or customized to each child’s needs.
Narine: Recently I came across the article about how the Virtual Reality experience helps children, parents, teachers, and even therapists better communicate and connect with other people and the world around them.
Do you have any plans to integrate VR solutions into noomee?
Gayane: What is interesting, yes, we have long term plans in which there will be more cooperation with these types of organizations who have already been created. But for sure, children will benefit from it because I don’t remember who said it, “Technology is a native language for children nowadays.” They accepted mobile apps or virtual reality or any type of technology as their native language. It’s interesting.
During our testing, it was interesting to see when the app was only in the Armenian language. And I was outside of Armenia. I was in Luxembourg. And I tested with kids. And it was interesting to see how they react in the app when they don’t understand the language, but they understand from the pictures. So they repeated whatever the app told them as I told them, and it was amazing to see.
I even didn’t tell them what they needed to do. They just took it and started to repeat.
Narine: I’m glad you talked about your Luxembourg experience.
I’m really curious to know if there are demographic and cultural differences between children with autism the way they perceive the information or those skills. For example, if we compare children in Armenia and the United States.
How do you adapt noomee to those cultural differences?
Gayane: Very interesting question.
So the problem is global. The issue is global. The autism spectrum disorder is different. Each case is different, but there are similar things or develop certain skills. And it should be customized with illustrations, for example, breakfast in Armenia, it’s different from breakfast in France, or do you need the problem to be the same. The methodology of question therapy methodology is the same. We need to just take into consideration the cultural differences, and then adapt to different cultures, different countries.
Narine: Gayane, what do you think the future holds for noomee?
Gayane: Our vision is to be a tool not only for children with autism spectrum disorder, but for kids with any type of disabilities. And we also want to provide professionals or to any type of specialist, so it will be customized to each therapy type and each special needs. That’s our vision. That’s where we are going.
Narine: That’s an important vision. Good Luck with that.
Gayane: Thank you
Narine: So, Gayane, In recent years, Armenia’s startup ecosystem is growing exceptionally. And I feel so excited to see more female founders in Armenia coming to the tech scene.
What are some of the challenges for you as a female entrepreneur?
Gayane: So maybe for me, the first challenge was because of society. It’s a social impact enterprise. Like, globally, there are up to maybe 100 investors who are ready to invest in social impact companies, and its child challenging. So it’s hard to find investors.
The second in some cases, I add challenging as a female founder, in some cases, no, but maybe depends on like, mentality. For example, we were hiring an engineer. And he was when he asked during the interview, who asked, okay, so your CEO is, is a woman?
Narine: that’s funny
So, what do you think is missing in the Armenian startup ecosystem to attract investors from the Diaspora to come to Armenia and do business?
Gayane: The Armenian ecosystem offers really interesting opportunities, especially for Armenia’s core system offers very interesting opportunities for startups. And still, it’s like the opportunities are growing year by year even more. But I would say that people need to concentrate also on social impact, not social impact businesses, not doing all the voluntary work.
Narine: It’s really good to point to investing more in social enterprises. Today, many startup founders are social innovators.
So Gayane, what is the best way to learn more about Naomi?
Gayane: you can visit our website https://www.noomee.me/
And we are on LinkedIn, in all social platforms, where you can search noomee app you.
Narine: Well Gayane jan, thank you again for a great conversation. You have such an important mission to carry out. Good luck with all your endeavourment.
Gayane: Thank you Narine. It was a pleasure.
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