Aug. 19, 2019

Enterprising 11-year-old girls create and pitch an app to help kids with social anxiety

Faculty of Science encourages team on the journey to Technovation World competition in Silicon Valley
Faculty of Science leadership award team Robot Unicorns first prize at the Technovation regional pitch competition at the University of Calgary
Robot Unicorns headed to Silicon Valley for the Technovation World Pitch on August 15, 2019. Colleen De Neve

A team of 11-year-old girls from Calgary were part of the excitement in California’s Silicon Valley last week, representing Calgary’s friendly, innovative, and entrepreneurial spirit on the global tech stage at the Technovation World Pitch competition.

Technovation is a 12-week global technology entrepreneurship program that teaches girls technical skills needed to help them develop a mobile app and launch a business that solves a community problems in sectors like education, health, and the environment. Distinguished alumna Anar Simpson, BSc'86, MCS'01, is the Global Ambassador for Technovation, and has helped grow Technovation to over 100 countries. The Faculty of Science has been home to Technovation for the Calgary region since 2014.

Throughout the 12 weeks, each team is matched with women mentors from tech companies, who help them move through four stages of launching a mobile app startup:

  • identifying a problem in the community
  • developing a solution
  • building a business plan
  • and taking the business to market.

Once their ideas are formed, the teams pitch their businesses and apps at pitch competitions in cities across the world.

Tito Akinlosotu and Emma Cutler of Robot Unicorns pitch their app, Cloud9, at the Technovation regional pitch competition hosted by the University of Calgary's Faculty of Science.

Tito Akinlosotu, left, and Emma Cutler present at the 2019 Technovation Calgary regional pitch.

Colleen De Neve

Group effort leads to team success

Technovation teams are typically spearheaded in schools and community organizations and sponsored by a teacher. Much like their home city of Calgary, Robot Unicorns — Tito Akinlosotu, Sarah Jacobson, Emma Cutler, and Claire Palmer — do things their own way. They’re a group of girls from two different schools, encouraged by parent volunteers, and mentored by experts in the business community and Faculty of Science.

When Tito Akinlosotu’s mom heard about Technovation, she suggested that Tito — who was in grade 6 at St. Bridgid School and had been teaching herself coding since she was nine — get involved. Looking for team members, they reached out to Dr. Mea Wang, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Technovation Regional Ambassador for Calgary.

Sarah’s father, Mike, is a professor in the Department of Computer Science; he brought the idea to Sarah, and she jumped on board, along with Claire Palmer and Emma Cutler, two of her classmates at Arbour Lake School. Because the girls were from different schools, they did all of their work outside of regular class hours, usually meeting at Calgary Public Library. Their parents were supportive every step of the way. Sarah and Tito took care of the coding, while Claire and Emma developed the business plan and creative elements.

Learning how to code was hard, says Sarah, but the team was paired with some great mentors who helped them along the way. “Every team got two mentors — a tech mentor and a business mentor. Our tech mentor, Hadiya Firdaus, was really awesome. The University of Calgary got us Marilyn Wannamaker as our business mentor, and she was really awesome — and she’s a psychologist!” Sarah enthuses. The Department of Computer Science also hosted weekly coding workshops for the teams.

Claire Palmer and Sarah Jacobson of Robot Unicorns pitch their app, Cloud9, at the Technovation regional pitch competition hosted by the University of Calgary's Faculty of Science.

Claire Palmer, left, and Sarah Jacobson present at the 2019 Technovation Calgary regional pitch.

Compassionate app helps kids cope with social anxiety

The girls decided to focus their app on social anxiety, a problem they say is high on the list of problems affecting kids.

“We were researching problems that affect children and women, and social anxiety in children was one of the main ones that popped up,” explains Claire. “I’ve had minor social anxiety because I wasn’t really sure about myself at the time. I just didn’t feel like I was good enough to any of my friends. I think an app like this would have helped me back then.”

Says Emma, “Most people think social anxiety is for adults, not kids. But that’s not true! A lot of kids have social anxiety, so we wanted to help them with that.”

Their app, Cloud 9, aims to help children address social anxiety through a three-step process. First, users share their experience with Charlie, a friendly digital dog.

“We chose dogs because the presence of an emotional support animal can relieve anxiety, and dogs are some of the most effective,” Emma tells.

Next, a trustworthy and supportive digital therapist listens, asks questions, and offers personalized advice to address social anxiety. Finally, Cloud9’s Resource Hub connects users to stories from people with social anxiety, and links to local and online resources.

“The Resource Hub has stories, articles, links, phone numbers — everything you need,” says Tito. “So if you ever have trouble, you can search through them to find advice. We also have the option for you to send us ideas about things that really helped you get through your social anxiety. We’ll add it to the app, so it’s continuously growing.”

Charlie the golden retriever, Cloud9's digital friend, helps children open up about social anxiety.

Charlie, Cloud9's digital friend, helps children open up about social anxiety.

Local win leads to global opportunity

After competing at the Calgary regional pitch competition hosted by the Faculty of Science in May, Robot Unicorns were named Junior Division finalists. They were the only Canadian team selected by Technovation judges to travel to California for the global event to compete against the other top 6 teams from around the world.

“We’re so proud of these girls,” says Sarah’s mom, Barbara, who was highly involved in supporting Robot Unicorns’ Technovation journey. “They learned teamwork and collaboration, and developed their entrepreneurial skills.”

The Technovation World Pitch event took place in Santa Clara, California, from Aug. 12-15, culminating with the pitch competition on Aug. 15. During the week, the team took part in tours of major tech companies, and capped off their week with the pitch competition at Oracle.

“Robot Unicorns have done a great job creating an app that can help so many kids. They’re a great example of the innovation that can come from encouraging girls to get involved in technology from a young age,” says Dr. Lesley Rigg, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Science. “We’re so proud to see this team representing Calgary, and Canada, on the world stage, and we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next for this group of amazing young women.”

Robot Unicorns plan to look for funding and sponsorship opportunities to continue developing their app, and getting it to market.

Visit their website or view their app demonstration and pitch videos to learn more.

The Faculty of Science’s support for the 2019 Technovation event was made possible by sponsorship from Husky Energy, Motorola Solutions Foundation, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).