Otsimo's founder Zafer Elcik
Otsimo’s founder Zafer Elcik with his younger brother, Alper.

Hasan Zafer Elcik’s little brother Alper was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of two and a half and, for many years after, was unable to talk, read or write. Then, about seven years ago at their home in an Ankara, Turkey, suburb, Elcik let his little bro play with his new smartphone. The boy, whose condition impaired his ability to focus on much of anything, was mesmerized. 

That discovery eventually led Elcik to develop games aimed at kids with disabilities like his brother’s and co-found a company to sell them. Called Otsimo, the Ankara-based three-year-old enterprise is, “democratizing education for people with special needs,” says Elcik, who is nine years older than his brother. 

Now, with about 100 games on its mobile platform, the 12-employee enterprise has more than 150,000 users globally—30,000  in Turkey, and the rest mostly in the U.S., the U.K and Canada—and around $25,000 in monthly recurring revenue. In 2018, the company partnered with the Turkish Ministry of Education to license its platform for use in special education curriculum.

Inside Turkey, the app is free. In other places, there’s a monthly subscription of about $10 through which users get such features as daily reports, speech therapy skills and other analytics. Ultimately, the goal is to find partners in other areas—insurance companies in the U.S., for example, or a private autism foundation in France. Says Elcik, “We want to form b-to-b deals in every region of the world.”

A Dearth of Apps

After Elcik observed Alper’s remarkable fascination with his phone, he bought the boy an iPad. But Elcik discovered there was a dearth of games and apps for kids with special needs. “I couldn’t find anything he could play or learn with,” says Elcik. On the low end, the few existing apps were littered with ads. On the high end, education for people with autism can be astronomically expensive. In the US, in addition to medical costs, intensive behavioral interventions for children with autism comes to $40,000 to $60,000 per child per year, according to Autism Speaks.

Elcik, who was still in high school, lacked programming chops to develop his own game. Then, in 2013, he started attending Middle East Technical University. Turned out, his roommate, fortuitously,  was a computer whiz by the name of Sercan Değirmenci, who also worked at a gaming company. The two became great friends,and Değirmenci’s helped design an app for Elcik’s brother. The plan: Using gamification, it would teach color basics, along with providing the ability for parents to collect data for further analysis. 

Two years later, a tT-hackathon,  a 48-hour hackathon in Ankara, they created a prototype. Alper tried it and learned to distinguish colors like a pro. 

With that, Elcik realized lots of kids could benefit from similar games. “When I saw how quickly my brother learned, we decided we needed to bring this to the world,” he says. First, they talked to psychiatrists, researchers and other experts. Then they uploaded the app onto Github. Finally, after a few months, they introduced the game on the app store to an enthusiastic response. In August 2016, they officially formed Otsimo. 

Since social-impact structures don’t exist in Turkey, Elcik used a hybrid model. Educational content production, content creation and curriculum studies are carried out by the Inclusive Education Association on behalf of Otsimo.com. Technology and education development activities are run by Otsimo Bilişim A.Ş.

Games now focus on everything from reading and writing to tasks of daily life (learning about different weather conditions, or fruits and vegetables)  and “core skills”, like matching emotions to facial expressions. According to Elcik, the platform also uses simple social stories, a widely used instructional tool for teaching about real-world interactions. Thus, a tale may describe how to perform activities like paying for a taxi, so kids can then mimic the actions in real life. Through artificial intelligence capabilities that can analyze a child’s progress, the app offers parents statistics and recommendations. 

Fundraising and Some Big Breaks

Initial funding of $50,000 came from an investor with Galata Business Angels, an angel investing group, followed by another $250,000 from five others. In between the two rounds, Elcik raised $30,000 through a crowdfunding campaign.

Then came a big break and what amounted to an entrepreneurial Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In 2017, Otsimo was accepted to the first class in the Hamdi Ulukaya Initiative (HUI), a program founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, to support entrepreneurs in Turkey. Elcik and Değirmenci spent eight weeks in New York City, at Chobani’s in-house incubator

That was followed by another coup: In 2018, Elcik was accepted as an Ashoka fellow, one of 30 active fellows in Turkey. He received a three-year stipend for living expenses, plus one-on-one consulting help and access to the Ashoka network. There, he worked with advisors on a major concern also of interest to Ashoka: how to create systemic change, rather than merely delivering a service. According to Istem Akalp, director of social entrepreneurship & fellowship, Elcik’s focus on empathy as a vital skill is of particular importance. “Empathy, for Ashoka, is a skill needed for a world where everyone can thrive as a changemaker,”  she says. “This is not just another tool for people with disabilities.” Akalp also points to Otismo’s potential impact and ability to expand. “His model is very inclusive and scalable,” she says. 

Ashoka, a 19-year-old nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has 3,500 fellows around the world. The organization chooses candidates using five criteria: They have a new idea targeting a social problem, they’re creative problem-solvers, they’re entrepreneurial in outlook, their idea can have a significant social impact and they exhibit an “ethical fiber”, according to the group’s web site.

A year after an initial brushoff—“We were too small” says Elcik—Otsimo also formed the beginnings of the partnership with the Turkish government.  A three-month pilot was followed by an ongoing effort, now in 11 schools. Next step: doubling the number of schools this year. According to Elcik, some schools have renovated classrooms specifically for teaching curriculum built around the app.

While the first customers were based in Turkey, families from overseas started learning about the company through its blog posts. That attracted users in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and elsewhere. Elcik plans to conduct his own studies of the app’s effectiveness soon. “It’s on our roadmap,” he says. 

As for Alper, according to Elcik, he’s made vast improvements. Able to talk, read and write, he now lives on his own with a coach.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.