Where tech meets social: how entrepreneurs use tech to drive social change

7 Mar 2013

Emma Murphy, CEO and clinical director, The Turning Institute

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) has been helping social enterprises across Ireland scale up for the past eight years. However, the organisation is seeing a shift towards technology social entrepreneurship. We talk to the founders of two social enterprises about how they have combined technological solutions in their businesses in order to drive social change.

Darren Ryan, head of engagement at SEI, says the organisation has been seeing a shift towards tech social entrepreneurship in the past few years.

SEI provides funding and a structure of support to social entrepreneurs to help them grow their ideas and increase their impact.

In its eight years of operation, Ryan says SEI has seen 161 social entrepreneurs come through its doors.

“We’ve contributed nearly €5m in funding to those entrepreneurs. The trend we are starting to see in the last few years is people coming to us with projects that are completely mission-driven and targeted at solving specific social problems using technology as the vehicle to do that,” explains Ryan.

He says mental health, physical health and education are some of the main areas where social entrepreneurs are starting to deploy technology.

Online programme for eating disorders

Emma Murphy is CEO and clinical director of The Turning Institute, a new online programme to help people with eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia. The programme received Endeavour funding from SEI last year.

Murphy is a psychotherapist who specialises in eating disorders. She is the founder of Sandyford Wellness Clinic.

About two years ago, she had two clients who started at the same time: a 40-year-old woman and a 50-year-old man. Both of her clients had been struggling with bulimia for 25 to 30 years.

“They had never before brought the eating disorder into the therapy room. This happened quite a lot, so I said to myself there has to be an easier way to make it easier for my clients to get help,” explains Murphy.

At her Sandyford clinic, Murphy already ran a 12-week group therapy programme in addition to meeting people individually.

She decided to take that group therapy format and translated the 12-week programme into an online format, co-founding The Turning Institute along with Alan O’Neill, the programme’s online marketing director, and Vinny Reynolds, senior developer.

“It’s online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). These programmes are not new, but the way we did it is extremely different to how everybody else did it,” explains Murphy.

“We took a group of actors and gave them all characterisations and back stories and we used a lot of issues that are common to people with eating disorders.”

The online programme is pre-recorded videos but each participant logs on and sees the therapist (ie, Murphy) outlining what they will be covering during a particular session.

“Participants do a written exercise in the middle of the session and they have to download the exercise and write it. So we are using writing as a therapeutic tool. It’s about helping people process information better by actually making them write,” she says.

Once they finish this exercise they turn the video back on again and enter the online group featuring Murphy and the actors.

The programme also offers online webinars to give people the option of interacting with a therapist, but she stresses that this is entirely optional.


The reason why The Turning Institute received an Elevator award from SEI, she says, is because it made accessing therapeutic intervention online affordable for people who otherwise may not be able to afford to go to a therapist.

“People get access to a 12-week programme that represents 24 hours of group therapy. It’s for the cost of two sessions of face-to-face therapy,” explains Murphy.

The online programme has been running for two years now for testing and is just about to launch. A clinical trial of the programme started this week at Dublin City University.

“It took us nearly a year to get the entire course online,” she says, adding that there’s now some major funding in the pipeline from the commercial sector.

“Social entrepreneurial projects can be commercially viable.”

Finally, she says the programme is not online counselling.

“The key differentiator for us is that people can engage with our programme completely anonymously and confidentially online.”

This year, The Turning Institute will also be doing a pilot of the programme in the US with the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA).

“Our goal is to be established in the European market, but also in the US market,” adds Murphy.

Lisa Domican

Lisa Domican, founder of Grace App

Next up is Grace App, a new app for children with autism or special needs.

Lisa Domican is the founder of Grace App, which has also been supported by SEI, receiving an Elevator award from the organisation in 2011.

Domican says the inspiration to develop the app came from her daughter Gracie, who has autism. She needed to use picture cards known as PECs (picture exchange communication) to teach her daughter how to communicate.

“Grace was extremely good at communicating her needs with PECS but she relied on me to add to her vocabulary with new cards. As a mum with two autistic kids, there was often a delay in taking, saving, printing and laminating those new pictures,” explains Domican.

After six years, she says Gracie had accumulated so many pictures that the book had become unwieldy.

“I knew that I wanted to keeping visually prompting her emerging voice, but in a way that was more portable and enabled us to add pictures wherever we were,” explains Domican.

Inspiration from the iPhone

It was an advertisement for the iPhone and pictures of apps that reminded Domican of Gracie’s picture book.

“I knew nothing about iPhones or even what an app was, but I thought there might be a way to put Gracie’s pictures on that device,” she explains.

Domican set about enlisting the expertise of the programmer Steven Troughton-Smith in order to develop the app.

“I had read about Steven online and set out to contact him via social media. When I did, and explained what I was trying to do, he agreed to help me straight away.”

Since then, the Grace app has been downloaded 20,000 times. It is available for the iPhone, iPad and the iPod touch.

“We’ve just had the app translated into six languages by Tethras, which specialises in app localisation services,” she says. This means the app is now also available in French, German, Spanish, Danish, Brazilian, Portuguese and Arabic.

Domican says the app is simple to use and works well with Apple’s user interface.

“It also addresses a niche in visual communications that encourages the users’ own voice. Its simplicity and usability is down to the fact that it was created in collaboration with somebody who uses and needs it,” she explains.

Joining the SEI network has been pivotal, explains Domican, in terms of the mentoring, encouragement and support she has received.

“Winning the Elevator award gave me the resources to travel and attend some major assistive technology conferences as a speaker in the US and Spain,” she says.

Domican has also recently presented workshops in Australia.

Training others

As for her plans for Grace App this year, she is aiming to continue offering workshops to show people how to use the app.

“I want to develop my training into a set of videos and incorporate those into the manual I’ve already written.”

In addition, Domican also wants to reach out to carers who look after people with autism, special needs or a traumatic brain injury.

“I have an app that helps the user communicate, I want to create one that supports their carers in supporting and developing that communication,” she affirms.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic