The onset of COVID19 has changed the lives of millions of people around the world. Businesses are shuttered, entertainment is cancelled, and transportation has been put on pause while nations wait for the pandemic to pass. Yet, simultaneously there’s been a boom in digital initiatives hoping to step in and solve the crisis from behind their computers.
One Estonian startup that’s been making the rounds at the recent hackathons with great success has been Zelos. Their app, which was initially developed for volunteer team coordination, has now taken on a life of its own with the addition of Community Helpdesk. The winning entry in March’s Hack the Crisis, COVIDhelp uses the app’s platform to connect volunteers with vulnerable people in their community in need of help. And now, with a top 10 placement in the Empowerment & Solidarity track in this April’s The Global Hack, Zelos is seeing collaborative possibilities with various nations’ governments. Plus, the idea of branching out into areas they never expected.
Born out of the need for efficiency
The idea of Zelos came about 3 years ago, when now CEO, Johanna-Mai Riismaa, was working as the main coordinator at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. With already more than 15 years experience managing large teams at sports events, festivals, and conferences, she began noticing how things could be done differently.
“When you do the same thing every year over and over again, you start looking for solutions to the problems that you have. The problem that I had was as time went by and we got more volunteers, it was more difficult to communicate with the old school emails and schedules that people were using in the industry. So I started looking for software solutions.”
But since there wasn’t a good fit on the market, she began formulating a plan herself. And along with now CTO Viktor Lillemäe, they put together an app prototype.
After spending some time in the Startup Wise Guys Accelerator, they received 250,000 euro in funding from the Nordic Angels Program. With this, Zelos could start scaling their stress-free, intuitive volunteer management app. In 2019, they began seeing great initial success. Zelos was used to coordinate volunteers at the Estonian Song Celebration and was used to run a campaign of an independent presidential candidate in Lithuania. In October of 2019, they launched a new version of the app. And with plenty of events and festivals lined up for summer 2020, their prospects looked promising.
Until a month ago. When Zelos was suddenly thrown into the unenviable situation of promoting an app built for managing large teams in a time when there were no more events for the foreseeable future.“Obviously festivals are not a big hit this summer. And everything we had planned in collaboration this year, now none of it is happening. We’ve had to make really big changes,“ said Riismaa.
Innovating in the face of uncertainty
Hack the Crisis was the first step in this big change. After winning, COVIDhelp was picked up and hacked by a Latvian team in Hackforce, just one week later. And the software, which is able to build a crisis phone helpline for the elderly in under 48 hours, has been officially backed by both the Estonian and Latvian governments. Because it’s simple to launch, easy for volunteers to install, and helps reduce the workload of emergency services, Community Helpdesk has attracted a lot of attention. Zelos is currently in talks with the governments in Hungary, Botswana and Nigeria. Plus, the Global Hack saw them working with 4 local implementers with some promising collaboration from the Philippines. As well as kick-starting discussions with teams from more than 10 countries including Sweden, the US, India, Azerbaijan, and the UK.
Coinciding with April’s The Global Hack was their participation in Salto Growth Camp: EMERGEncy. Here they have been in talks with both the Estonian and Finnish rescue associations to develop a rescue branch to their app which would support emergency rescue volunteers.
This is not the normal trajectory of an early-stage startup, but if the current crisis has taught us anything, it’s that humankind can quickly adapt to abnormal situations. Riismaa, notes:
“As the crisis hit, selling to actual disaster relief, this is not usually what you get access to as an early startup, so it has been a big leap forward for us. But in emergencies, these “big players” are more OK with looking at a startup solution. Because we just need to find solutions.”
Solution-focused and adaptable
Although she does hint that startups are not the full solution for our current crisis, Riismaa did express why they are being considered more and more. Adding:
“Startups are pretty quick in figuring out new problems. That’s what you do when you’re a really nimble, early team. It’s easy for startups to do this hackathon type of fixes….And for governments and bigger players, there are some innovative programs that they want. If you are solving something, then early-stage doesn’t matter.”
And even though Zelos are working from home this month, there have been no plans to slow down. Commenting on what’s next for her company, Riismaa, and her team of 5 are currently looking forward to what the future brings, noting:
“This is the silver lining to this terrible crisis: community means more to people when you have this common enemy. We need to beat this together. This brings people closer. This really shows that technology is not something that drives people apart. But it can be a connecting factor, by bringing different people together if you have the same access to the digital space. “