By Daniel Mpala
At 22 years old, Nigerian Emmanuel Okon is one of a few African innovators whofounded a startup that’s gone on to get backing from Silicon Valley social media giant Facebook.
Okon (pictured above) co-founded Lagos-based Vmedkit last year. The medtech startup’s founding team includes Philip Igboba, clinical psychologist Feyisetan Oluwatoyosi, as well as Jimoh Saheed and Ridwan Yusuf.
The startup uses virtual reality (VR) technology to tackle psychiatry disorders in mentally ill people through virtual reality therapy (VRT).
Its VR content aims to simulate certain real-life environments, which it says has been shown to treat various kinds of anxiety disorders.
The 2019 Anzisha Prize finalist confides that he suffered from mental health issues growing up.
Vmedkit’s backers include Facebook and the Tony Elumelu Foundation
“So, going from there and getting to university and being exposed to technology, I thought ‘how can I use my current skillset and technology to solve this problem?’” he says.
It was while the statistics graduate led a mental health campaign during his year of national youth service, which is compulsory for Nigerian youth on completion of school, that he got thinking of the problem.
He says during the campaign he was struck by how big a problem mental health is in Nigeria. He estimates that as many as 40 million people in the country (about one fifth of the population) suffer from mental health illnesses.
“So, that’s when I talked to my co-founders, one of them is a clinical psychologist and one of them has a tech background and we decided to come together to see if we can come up with some technology to solve that,” says Okon.
The startup currently develops its solutions on the Oculus VR headset, which it received from Facebook.
“We’ve received a $20 000 investment from Facebook and we’re also connected with mentors in California in the US, who work with VR technology. We are able to get advice and support from them,” he says.
Okon explains that he and his co-founders initially bootstrapped the startup and raised their first capital from friends and family. “Along the way we were able to get a product out and that’s when Facebook and the Tony Elumelu Foundation came in,” he says.
While Vmedkit only entered the market earlier this year, the startup has already helped over 500 people.
The model Okon and his team have adopted is one of a business-to-business (B2B) model, with a focus on mental health in workplaces.
In addition, the startup is also working with and designing solutions for mental health clinics and autism centres. Okon says Vmedkit’s clients include one autism centre and three other hospitals.
Facing off the pressures
Okon says the hardest challenge the startup has faced to date has been in finding the right talent.
“Given that we are working with very new technology, finding people that are skilled enough to be on our team to build this, is quite hard,” he says.
Vmedkit currently employs six full-time and eight part-time staff. Okon explains that the company has had to train most of its staff itself.
Founding and running a medtech startup hasn’t been easy for the young entrepreneur either.
“To be frank, I would think that since I started entrepreneurship I’ve never run into debt as many times as before. It’s almost as if I’ve been in constant debt,” he says.
He admits that sometimes when he faces the pressures that come with running a tech startup, he sometimes wonders if he’s “doing the right thing”.
“It’s very difficult, because I have other people asking me ‘Why don’t you go on and do your masters, why don’t you go get a job?’,” he adds.
He points out that his mother has also suggested that he get a job, insisting that he “can do this later”.
Okon says despite being offered a masters scholarship to study in Canada, he wants to pursue a career in entrepreneurship. And he believes his defiance is proof that he has “what it takes” to go to market.
“They don’t see it the way I see it, they are more like I’m getting it all wrong. Because there’s nobody that’s doing what I’m doing, I’m just kind of like the black sheep but definitely , I know what I’m doing is the right thing.
“If they could have seen things from my own perspective then they’d be more supportive. I think that would go a long way”. He says.
Featured image: Vmedkit CEO and co-founder Emmanuel Okon