Ursula Lavrenčič received her Architectural Degree from the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana, Slovenia and her Master of Arts from the Design Academy Eindhoven, The Netherlands. She is the co-founder of Hopalai, the start-up behind Kobi. She came up with the idea when she became aware of dyslexia from close by, as her daughter was coping with it. She is a creative thinker with the ability to see things in their biggest context.
Children who experience reading difficulties like dyslexia end up being frustrated and stressed. Which is exactly why they created KOBI, an app for dyslexia that helps children to read. Kobi helps children with the decoding element of reading. The personalised reading form with coloured letters instantly improves readability, resulting in a better reading rate and accuracy. Success motivates children to read more and more, which leads to fluent reading and better comprehension.
The British Dyslexia Association recognised Kobi as a valid tool in the battle against dyslexia and awarded the app a place in their coveted ‘Assured’ programme. Kobi is also the first mobile app focused on supporting reading practice to be accepted into the Assured programme.
What follows is a very informative interview with Ursula Lavrenčič, co-founder of Hopalai, the start-up behind Kobi.
Intro question: What is the social innovation KOBI about?
KOBI started as a mobile app – a learning tool to acquire reading fluency faster and with less stress. It was created to support children who struggle with learning to read because of dyslexia or other issues.
Reading difficulties – 10–20% of children experience difficulties while learning to read and write; it is the most frequent so-called ‘learning disability’. Reading difficulties are a well-researched field and the science says that early intervention is the most effective. Provided they receive appropriate teaching, these children can and do learn. At the beginning, however, the problems are not yet pronounced, the gap with their peers is not yet large and children do not normally receive any special treatment. But poor literacy leads to increasing problems in school, as well as secondary disciplinary and psychological issues. Therefore, it is crucial that a child is supported with effective methods before serious problems actually occur.
Help – KOBI is a solution that provides individualised support from the first signs of trouble onwards. It is a useful tool for all children, even those who have no problems. KOBI is easy to use and suitable for classroom, individual and homework. It was developed with the active involvement of 42 parents and teachers, 24 of whom were special educators. It offers a selection of science-based tools and text adaptations that help a child overcome letter reversals (turning), adopt tracking, binding, fluency and, consequently, develop good reading comprehension. KOBI makes reading easier for children, which in turn means they like reading and so read more.
It uses adjustable colour-coding of letters and various other effective tools. Adjusted the formatting of text helps greatly with decoding, blending and letter reversals. By using colour we provide extra sensorial input that speeds up orthographic mapping. This is an extremely important part of learning to read and children with dyslexia experience great problems with it. So, KOBI is a unique solution that digitalises any text and provides features that help with reading practice and so enable a child to achieve fluent reading more quickly.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
Two of our founding partners have first-hand experience with a dyslexic child. Frustrated with the lack of support in mainstream school and out of enthusiasm for a solution that really worked, we were determined to do something about it. We teamed up with two enthusiast professionals and the KOBI team was born. We developed the KOBI app, started giving lectures in schools to raise awareness and understanding of dyslexia, created a virtual reality game inspired by dyslexia and took on the role of ambassador for children with reading difficulties. Literacy is a fundamental right of every child. And this includes children who experience difficulties in learning to read. Technology should be used to help them learn, not merely to provide a ‘wheelchair’ in the form of assistive technologies.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
The idea started out at the kitchen table while teaching a child to read. But it was formed and polished by a team of five developers and designers, who carefully listened to what educators and parents had to say as well.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
Any new start means an investment of time and dedication. In my case it also meant that I was pulling in others to join me in the investment, so I did feel responsible. If the project did not ‘succeed’, a lot of time of the whole team would be wasted. So we did not jump blindly; instead, we did a pilot and then continued step by step. Each confirmation gives you a little more courage. And then, suddenly, you reach the point of no return, which is actually scarier than the beginning. I think the whole team took on KOBI as a great opportunity to grow. We define success ourselves. And the potential for failure is simply part of the game. There is no point being afraid. Estimate your risks and live with them. A friend of mine once said, ‘Worrying is like fantasising, just in the wrong direction’.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?)
It started with a deep understanding of the struggles that a child with dyslexia has to go through within the regular educational system. And a very honest desire to contribute to positive change, rather than complain. The first idea, to make a digital product around one of the little ‘hacks’ that we used to help with reading, came spontaneously, and it was very ambitious. We were talking augmented reality and advanced glasses. So to start with, we scaled it down and then got busy. We were communicating with the community about our progress, talking to teachers and parents from the start. This kept us motivated. When we were sure that the product had a future, we started looking seriously at the economics and how to fund it. We founded a company to get access to public funding, but we were not successful. At the moment we continue to invest our time, but at a certain point, we will probably need to find an investor.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
Since 10% of the population has dyslexia, in every audience there is someone who knows about it first-hand. That helps 🙂 We are also talking about kids, and the media in general are very intrigued by topics related to children. When you have a clear point and are talking honestly, people listen.
But most importantly, I would say, we are providing a simple, effective solution, one that is easy to implement within the regular educational framework. This resonates extremely positively with educators. However, when we presented the solution directly to the school administrators, we were not very successful. Then we addressed the teachers directly and offered them a licence; they just needed to provide the consent of the headmaster. This really worked. You have to talk to people that experience the problem first-hand and who are interested in finding real-life solutions that actually work.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
First we did a paper pilot, a skinny version of what the app would do, and asked people what they thought. We had a sample of 100 parents and teachers and in short, over 90% reported that the coloured letters helped with regard to various criteria. Then we coded a browser plugin, but it was too difficult to use, so not many people were using it. But when we offered ‘kobified’ stories to download, we got a great response. We quickly built a decent list of subscribers that were obviously very interested in what we were doing. We are also writing blogs providing tips and useful insights in literacy development.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
We have two other companies that do different projects and so pay for our bread. We have the luxury to be able to work on KOBI without too much financial pressure. My advice would be to, one way or another, create yourself some financial space so that you will have the time to invest in your idea. And you can always invest at least a little time. If you need a different skill set, try and find a person with that skill set and convince them to help. Find a co-founder and do it together. You have to create something; only then can things start moving. It is very difficult to get funds if you only have an idea to show, no matter how brilliant. Every investor will tell you: Execution is everything. And it is true.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
We are not quite there yet. At the moment we are patiently welcoming users one at a time. These early adopters are fantastic and very important. They give us feedback and cheer for us while we continue doing our best to create a life-changing solution.
How do you change the whole system?
In our case, one teacher at a time. Each teacher can decide to change something in their classroom, even if it is just a little support for one dyslexic child. It might have a small impact on the system but a huge impact on the life of that child. And since the system is made up of people, I believe that these small changes result in a big change eventually.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Interviewed by Maja Novak
Maja Novak is the CEO of NGO We4YOU. She is a training expert and mentor with a 17-year track record of projects in the fields of communication, social media, dissemination strategies and event organisation. She specialises in branding, creative writing, the use of video for training purposes and social media strategies to effectively spread the desired message. She delivers motivational speeches, communication training and high-performance coaching to a variety of audiences: aspiring (female) entrepreneurs and small business owners, students, first-job seekers and unemployed people. She holds NLP Master Practitioner and NLP practitioner certificates. She is also the author of Branding Accelerator Training, a LinkedIn for Branding mentoring programme and a Creative Writing mentoring programme. Maja is also a project coordinator for all SOCIA activities in Slovenia.
LinkedIn: Maja Novak
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