Opening access to special education for all in Turkey

By Başak  Demirdağ

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We are living in an era where everything seems possible yet, at the same time, a little out of reach. One the one hand, people have access to vast amounts of information through technological advancements, yet on the other, various cultural, social and technical barriers make this access to knowledge and information unequal.

Otsimo, based in Turkey, is working on a solution to one facet of this problem: democratizing access to special education. Its work is being assisted by the EBRD Star Venture Programme.

Otsimo was born out of brotherly love. “My brother Alper was diagnosed with severe autism when he was two years old,” says co-founder Zafer Elcik. “He had been non-verbal and unable to read for a long time.”

The family put much effort into enabling Alper to speak but he was having difficulties focusing and learning. During this time, Zafer realised that his brother showed huge interest in smartphones, retaining his attention on the devices about ten times longer than on any of his surroundings. Zafer and his friend built a simple digital game for Alper to teach him the colours and the results were very encouraging.

This is how they came up with the idea of gaming as a learning method for children with special needs and the story of Otsimo began.

Beginnings close to home

“I wanted to help my brother build his basic communication skills. But it turned into something bigger than us. Through the use of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and speech and face recognition, we turned a traditional learning method into a fun, easy-to-follow, two-way interactive learning experience. We offer highly customizable special education and speech therapy solutions through Otsimo.”

They have not reinvented the wheel through Otsimo: they took what traditionally works and brought high-tech solutions into the game. And it has proven successful: almost half a million children with special needs are now using Otsimo’s gamified educational solutions across the globe.

For the last five years, the Otsimo team have been continuously innovating on ways to make special education, speech therapy and education in general more fair and equal for children in terms of quality of content, methods used, suitability to needs, and, most importantly, access.

Democratizing access is important because it is often too costly for families to provide extensive education to their children with special needs. Unfortunately, there are not enough government support schemes in most of the world’s countries. To address this, Otsimo offers affordable and, to some extent, free services.

A push in the right direction

Otsimo is among the first companies to be selected for the recently launched EBRD Star Venture Programme in Turkey. Funded by South Korea via the Small Business Impact Fund, Star Venture offers extensive mentorship, advice and access to finance opportunities to selected innovative start-ups with growth potential. Following the bespoke advice offered by the programme, Otsimo conducted market research and built a market prioritisation map, worked on improving storytelling skills to reach more clients, and defined a fundraising strategy which is vital for growth.

“What we have been doing is for the greater good. But unfortunately, this doesn’t always necessarily guarantee the support we need to grow. Being selected for the EBRD Star Venture programme has been a highlight in our journey,” says Zafer, noting that the programme has opened many doors for the company.

“Being a part of a start-up community gave us access to many brilliant minds. The nature of our work requires lots of consulting with experts, and the programme gave us the opportunity to meet with many such experts from reputable universities and established institutions. Thanks to the mentoring offered, we have increased our impact and streamlined our work.”

Expanding goals

Otsimo has managed to start small, make a big impact, and expand. “But our work doesn’t stop there. We have much bigger dreams and our ultimate goal is to provide our tailor-made education solutions to the all the children in need, no matter where they are,” says Zafer.

In the first half of 2022, eight more Turkish start-ups will receive the mentoring, advice and access to financial support that the EBRD Star Venture Programme offers, thanks to donor support from Korea via the Small Business Impact Fund. The selected start-ups are: REM People, Smart Pulse Technology, OMMA, Evreka, Scotty, PulpoAR, Veloxia and AngoAI.

The donors to the Small Business Impact Fund are ItalyJapanLuxembourgNorway, South Korea, SwedenSwitzerland, the TaiwanBusiness-EBRD Technical Cooperation Fund and the United States of America.

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