“Beyond anything we imagined” - how a Staffordshire e-learning startup's AR expertise is providing mental health support in South Korea
Without the help of EEN and Innovate UK we would never have been able to travel to South Korea and meet so many high-level government officials and organisations
Suzanne Edwards, director and owner, Enlighten
It’s been named the most innovative company in the Midlands and is working with charities, universities, businesses and the Armed Forces. And, after taking part in a Global Business Innovation Programme (GBIP) visit to South Korea in 2018, Tamworth-based Enlighten is helping to create South Korea’s mental health strategy.
Originally started as an edtech company, Enlighten quickly found its calling in augmented reality (AR). “We thought that AR would be a slow burn but our main income stream is now from augmented reality,” says founder Suzanne Edwards.
Earlier this year, Enlighten won the Midlands Tech 50 award after impressing stakeholders, judges and the general public with the use of their AR apps and technologies to tackle mental health problems.
Learning about the South Korea opportunity
In 2018, Enlighten accompanied a cohort of companies to take part in a Global Business Innovation Programme (GBIP) visit to South Korea, organised by EEN to help innovative UK SMEs working in areas such as VR and AR to exploit the growing opportunities in South Korea.
During the visit, Enlighten learned that South Korea was in the grip of a mental health crisis and was looking at innovative ways to tackle the problem. Its extensive 5G networks and high levels of smartphone usage meant that Enlighten’s AR phone-based mental health resources were suited for the needs of South Koreans.
As a direct result of this programme, Enlighten has been invited by the local government of Gyeonggi province (with a population of 12.3m) to support its suicide prevention strategy.
One of the solutions that the Gyeonggi government has been exploring is to build a pilot suicide prevention centre within the city of Pyeongtaek BIX, a new smart city in Gyeonggi Province. Gyeonggi is the most densely populated region in South Korea and major centre for technologically advanced industries, while the city of Pyeongtaek has a population of over 400,000 people.
“The mental health suicide prevention centres are a huge undertaking. We’re looking to start work on it in January,” says Edwards. With South Korea having the highest rate of deaths by suicide in the developed world, this is certainly a huge challenge.
Making a EUREKA Eurostars bid
In order to help kick start this project, the EEN West Midlands team has been helping Enlighten with a bid for £1.9m in funding from the EUREKA Eurostars funding programme for the Pyeongtaek project. If successful, the company aims to create up to four new jobs within the next few months - in addition to the six existing employees.
Since the GBIP, Enlighten has hosted a delegation nine officials from the Gyeonggi regional government, introducing them to business, education and local government leaders in the West Midlands.
“Migrating 200,000 people into a new city is likely to increase feelings of isolation that may lead to depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses, yet suicide is still highly stigmatised in the country so people find it hard to talk about,” explains Edwards.
“We’re developing content and an AR platform that residents will be able to access via their smartphones when they move to the city. This interactive resource will provide mental health support alongside general city information.”
Enlighten has signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korean company Naviworks to deliver the project, who have a 19-year history supplying virtual reality training tools and systems for defence, police and security services worldwide. They are Enlighten’s partner for the Eureka project.
“We have introduced AR solutions into local colleges, worked with armed forces and are part of the West Midlands Smart City Alliance, but the South Korean interest is beyond anything we imagined,” says Edwards.
AR as a tool to support mental health
One in four people in the world will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. Enlighten want to reduce the stigma of this as well as using AR as a force for good.
Following the global success of Enlighten’s World Mental Health Day campaign that partnered with Rethink Mental Illness using BBC Three resources, A follow-up campaign released on International Men’s day encouraged men to talk about their problems and offered instant access to support materials and crisis support lines should they have suicidal thoughts; all conducted through AR tools.
This campaign aims to both reduce stigma around suicide and also provide help and support when it is most needed.
“AR can help in two ways, teachers and health professionals can use it to identify people who are at risk of suicide, and can also help people who might be feeling suicidal,” says Edwards.
“Traditionally, 16 to 24-year old males have been the hardest to reach but our research shows that, because they’re more comfortable using new technology, they’re more likely to access content in this way.”
A growing global market
The global market for VR and AR is predicted to be worth $120bn by 2020, with AR accounting for 70 per cent of the total. That is quite a number of augmented reality business opportunities to be developed.
“We know we’re in the right place to harness this emerging technology,” said Edwards. “We can’t thank the EEN team enough for believing in our potential.”