Virtual island helps kids to cope

Noel and Stephanie O'Malley

Training for parents and teachers is key to success of interactive programme, says Trish Dromey.

With an interactive virtual online world called Desty Island, Mayo technology and training startup Education Desty aims to help young children learn to cope with their feelings and develop emotional resilience.

The virtual island is part of a solution now being offered to parents, educators and schools in the UK and Ireland to promote children’s well being.

“We provide training to teachers, parents and carers to be mentors who accompany children to Desty Island where they learn to deal with core feelings and how to cope in difficult situations,” said company CEO and founder Stephanie O’Malley.

Following the launch on an online training platform earlier this year, Education Desty is now selling to five local authorities in the UK as well as several schools in Ireland.

Ms O’Malley is working on developing new markets in Dubai and Northern Ireland and fundraising for the development of a new product for preschool children.

An educational psychologist who conducted seven years research into the area of emotional intelligence, Ms O’Malley observed that children who needed help in expressing their emotions were frequently not being given the help they needed.

As part of her work on a PhD she piloted a beta version of a software programme in 2015 in the UK.

“This was designed to help children develop problem-solving skills, critical thinking, reflective thinking,” said Ms O’Malley, who was joined by her husband Noel O’Malley in setting up the company.

Operating from their home in Westport, they initially received LEADER support to develop a prototype of the software programme based on Ms O’Malley’s research and findings.

Their first customers were UK local authorities who funded the use of the programme in primary school.

Although Desty Island went online in 2015, Ms O’Malley initially had had to travel to the UK to provide the mentor training.

In 2017, fundraising of €200,000 — half from private investors and half from Enterprise Ireland in High Potential Start Up funding — allowed the company to develop an online platform to deliver the mentor training.

Ms O’Malley says this was a major step towards scaling the company internationally and is allowing Desty to develop sales in the UK and target new markets.

“We are now selling to five local authorities in the UK and aim to sell to a further two by October and to grow the number to 10 by the end of the year. 

"In the UK we have already trained 300 mentors and the platform is being used by around 900 children,” she said.

The Irish market accounts for around 10% of sales, where Desty customers include schools in Mayo and Galway, as well as Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Westmeath and Dublin.

Based at the Leeson Enterprise Centre in Westport, the company operates by charging for a mentor training and support package which includes a Desty cuddly toy. 

It also charges an annual license fee based on the number of children using the platform.

Currently fundraising for another €300,000, Ms O’Malley now has her sights on the International School market in the Middle East.

International schools are attended by the children of expatriates who she says can benefit from the assistance of the Desty programme in adapting to change and to living in a foreign country.

“There are 200 private schools in Dubai and we are now setting up discussion with a private school network which has 30 schools catering for almost 30,000 students,” she said.

The funding will be used for sales and marketing and also to develop a new product in addition to the one for six to 12-year-olds. 

“We hope to pilot a platform for three to six-year-olds in 2019,” said Ms O’Malley.

Next year she plans to recruit four staff and grow the workforce to nine.

“We are well on track to achieve our High Potential Start up target of having a staff of ten and a turnover of €1m by 2020.”

Ms O’Malley says that in selling internationally, Education Desty’s unique selling point is its training.

“We are the only company that provides training and support for mentors in addition to an e-learning platform for the children,” she said.

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