— AAAS Entrepreneur (@AAAS_Entr) September 23, 2016
Muhammad Waqas is Co-Founder and CEO of WonderTree, a Pakistani startup that makes educational and therapeutic games designed for children with special needs.
Muhammad was a finalist in this year’s GIST Tech-I Competition, an annual competition for science and technology entrepreneurs from 135 emerging economies around the world. GIST Tech-I is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative and has been implemented by AAAS since 2014.
We asked Waqas how WonderTree is working to advance United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #10, Reduced Inequalities. His responses are summarized below.
How did WonderTree come about?
WonderTree came about from co-founder Muhammad Usman’s, inspiration. One day Usman walked in his room and saw his elder brother with special needs playing on his Xbox. Usman noticed how motivated and engaged he was while playing the game. That’s when the idea struck to use the same engagement and motivation for education and development of his brother and other children like him. Usman started work on this idea with Ahmed Bukhari, another WonderTree co-founder.
Before WonderTree, I had left my job at one of the top advertising agencies in Pakistan and was running my own digital marketing agency. Although we were growing very fast, the venture wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. I felt that I lacked meaning in what I was doing. Usman and I are neighbors and good friends. Usman used to discuss his project with me. Things changed when Usman asked me to join his project. He and Ahmed wanted to turn it into a startup, and I wanted to work on something with a cause. We got incubated at The Nest IO an incubator located in Karachi and that’s where WonderTree was born and we started our operations.
What are some of the social inequalities faced by children and adults with special needs? How does WonderTree address these inequalities?
In Pakistan children with special needs rank among the lowest tiers of the society. Because of their dependency and disability they are pushed down. They are considered a burden for their parents and society. There is an immense lack of awareness, special schools, therapy, and rehabilitation centers. And then there is a lack of quality when it comes to special educators, therapists, psychologists for the development and education of children with special needs. Looking at a global picture, according to UNICEF, children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups in society. Facing daily discrimination in the form of negative attitudes as well as lack of adequate policies and legislation, they are effectively barred from realizing their rights to healthcare, education, and even survival.
With WonderTree we want to change this. We are redefining special education and therapy by making it accessible, cost effective and efficient. We are creating an eco-system through which these children too can become active and contributing members of the society.
What are the technologies and methodologies behind the WonderTree platform?
What we are doing with technology for children with special needs really excites me!
We are using augmented reality to make games for these children. We are turning unstimulating educational curriculum and mundane and painful therapy exercises into interactive, motivating and engaging games. So far we have received phenomenal response from the children who are playing our games. We have had a number of stories where the children weren’t participating in the class or taking up therapy and started responding to our games very actively. This has been a major source of encouragement for us. And this is not all, for every game we have elaborate reports which are generated as the child is playing the game. Through these reports, the entire data, statistics, and progress of the child can be monitored. This data can be used for research to further better our methods and games. We have already started working on machine learning and AI, to make our games smarter, so that they can adapt to every child’s individual needs. Again this is all very exciting for my team and I and this adds to our vision of redefining special education.
What is your vision for WonderTree?
We have big, big plans for WonderTree! Our vision is to redefine special education by making it efficient, cost effective and accessible to all. We are well on our way, we are starting with the development of a detailed curriculum that can cater to different children and adults with different needs. We see WonderTree becoming a facilitator for children and adults with special needs for their transition into the society where they can be active and contributing members everywhere in the world.
Then we want to make our platform intelligent, using machine learning, so that it becomes more effective and flexible. We are also focusing our attention on research and development from a researcher’s point of view, we are working in a very interesting area using AR and machine learning for human cognitive, behavioral, motor, and functional development. Our long term goal is to branch out towards health and education using our technology.