Ta2heal is a company that offers both online and offline services for special needs children. Learning about the impact of quality education first-hand, co-founder Tarek El Fakharany had his mind set on contributing to the advancement of education in Egypt.
Despite the lack of statistics, the overwhelming bureaucracy and shortage in good caliber, Ta2heal aided many children who urgently needed professional help and provided support for parents who were losing hope.
In this interview, El Fakharany tells us more about Ta2heal, and gives us an inside look into special needs education in Egypt.
What did you do before Ta2heal?
I graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, before working for several multinational corporations.
What inspired you to start Ta2heal?
I always wanted to do something that adds value to education. During my studies, I experienced both the positive and negative sides of education, and witnessed the impact it made on my life. I also wanted to focus on child psychology and explore the various factors that make kids enjoy the learning process.
In 2008, my friend and Ta2heal co-founder, Ahmed Mahfouz, and I started focusing on the idea of launching this platform. The entrepreneurial environment was far more challenging back then, and so we had to do everything on our own.
Have you found experts that are willing to help in child psychology?
At the very start, I went to Dr. Manal Omar, a specialist in the field to ask for advice, and she suggested I focus on autism instead of education in general. Taking it from there, we spent several more months educating ourselves on autism and gathering as much information as possible.
During the trial stage, we welcomed Dr. May El Rakhawy, with a PhD in child psychology, on board. She gave us a lot of support at that time; not only did she help us develop scenarios for our interactive videos, but she also allowed us to record sessions with children at her center, after receiving the parents’ consent. Those sessions were a great success as we learned a lot from her feedback and from the parents and specialists who attended.
How did you break into the market? Was it hard to gain parents’ trust?
It took us around six months to break into the market. Most of our clients are from referrals and word-of-mouth, with further emphasis on our credibility in the market. I believe people respect our transparency more than anything, as we tend to be very honest with our clients, even if what we say about their children is not what they want to hear.
Our detailed evaluation that we provide parents with, has helped us stand out as well. Most centers offer a short report without enough information for parents to grasp all the aspects of their child’s condition.
What are the services offered by Ta2heal?
We initially started with the idea of video modeling for autism, which was a new interactive way to help autistic children develop their skills by developing a cartoon character that guides them through the process. We then added games and 4,000 interactive questions.
Following that, we introduced our specialists’ services, which involve one-to-one home sessions by our experts. This service provides the parents with a more thorough evaluation of their children, and allows them to work on developing their various skills for their different needs. Moreover, we have shadow teachers who accompany special needs children to their schools to help them integrate smoothly.
Are you only focusing on autistic children?
At the beginning, our main focus was on autism. Most of our cases are autistic children in the middle of the spectrum, which means that their autism is neither mild nor advanced. Nevertheless, our videos and services are designed to help develop all cognitive skills, like memory, concentration, learning and speech-delay, etc. We also work on behavioral adjustment; if a specialist notices any issue with behavior, they work on it by default.
How do you maintain the quality of your service, especially with the responsibility involved with dealing with children?
Monitoring and following up are key to maintaining a good quality of service, and they are what some organizations lack. We are also very picky when it comes to choosing the specialists we collaborate with; we look into character and education, and we conduct in-depth interviews while taking copies of all their credentials.
We also send our own in-house specialists to monitor the first session in order to reassure the parents. Every specialist is expected to provide us with detailed evaluation of each case he/she handles, and if they fail to do so, or do not meet the set expectations, we terminate the agreement immediately.
Parents can reach us by phone 12 hours a day to ask us about situations they face on a daily basis and what they should or should not do.
Is there a certain success story/testimony that you remember?
During the trial period, there was an autistic boy who loved our games so much that he did not let the expert move the mouse. He insisted on learning it by himself, despite his undeveloped fine motor skills and muscles. We discovered then that kids benefit from many things other than what we originally intended.
Generally, with the cases we deal with, progress takes a lot of time, so we tend to focus on the little things. For instance, we consider a kid repeating the sounds after our cartoon character a success story on its own. Also, there are other cases, where only after a three-month session, a child gets accepted into a school that rejected him/her once, and these cases make it all worth it.
What was the most shocking fact you found about the special needs subject in Egypt?
The most outrageous fact is that basically anyone can become a certified specialist after taking a two-week course, allowing them into people’s homes to work with their children.
Another thing that startled us was that many doctors and specialists falsely claim that TV/phone/computer screens cause autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, which means it is genetic-related.
The body does not develop properly, which results in many cognitive and physical issues. Also, autism varies from one kid to the other, and the reason behind it has not been proven yet, so it is scientifically and medically wrong to assume that screens cause autism.
What is the biggest struggle you faced during your journey with Ta2heal?
We had a serious downfall last April, where we invested a lot of money in developing and promoting new games and videos, but all of a sudden there was an update in Google Chrome that ended up preventing the auto-play feature, which was a real inconvenience for the children.
That was followed by the summer, which is an off-season for education in general, and that reflected tremendously on our revenues and development plan.
We are still struggling with financials; we would rather allocate our money to developing new ideas and applications rather than over-the-top campaigns.
Have you considered making Ta2heal a non-profit organization to receive more donations?
Yes, the idea was tempting, but it is not that easy to get funds, and we do not have solid experience in that area.
During our journey, we met people in the field who could have helped us with investments, but it was always under the condition of sharing a percentage of the profit. We knew that our service was not very appealing to investors, and that it would take time and effort to sustain a profit.
That being said, we believe our current business model is more sustainable than a non-profit organization.
What is next for Ta2heal?
We are developing a new project called “Tamareen”, which is a more advanced version of our games. We will record an assessment for the kids during the session, and programmatically generate a learning plan and a syllabus based on that assessment.
This plan will be supported by videos that show parents exactly what their children need, and what they should be doing with them on a daily basis to develop their skills.
We believe it has great potential, especially if it spread across special needs centers in Egypt. Also, we are developing a mobile application, which many of our clients have asked for. In addition to expanding our network of specialists and shadow teachers, we are looking for opportunities to expand abroad, specifically the Gulf and England.