SFU first-year mechatronics students (l-r) Achini Amadara, Hanieh Zahiremami and Sam Mikl receive the Female Founder Award at the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize Competition, February 2017.

Female-founded mobile app supports mental health

May 02, 2017

When Hanieh Zahiremami, a first-year SFU mechatronics student, moved from Iran to Vancouver in grade 8, the cultural and language barriers she encountered made her feel isolated at first.

So, she did what many budding engineers would do and busied herself by learning to code, designing apps and building robots.

“I’ve always liked being hands-on; making things and fixing things,” says Zahiremami. “I found it really satisfying to create my own apps using Java and HTML coding languages—at the time, it helped me to feel less alone.”

Little did she know, within a few years, she would create an app to help other teenagers going through a difficult time.

In January 2016, Zahiremami, then in grade 12, teamed up with three fellow students from West Vancouver’s Rockridge Secondary School to take part in the global Technovation Challenge.

The annual competition challenges girls all over the world to create a business plan and prototype for a mobile app addressing a community problem—in just three months.

More than 10,000 girls from 78 countries have taken part in the event since 2010, including 56 girls who completed the 2016 regional event hosted by SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences.

Mentored by local tech company Appnovation, Zahiremami and her team created MyCosmos, a mental health awareness app that helps high school students and young adults manage their emotions in an interactive way.

The app offers up a list of “current moods”—anxious, stressed, sad or bored, for example, each represented with a corresponding planet icon.

Based on the user’s selection, the app provides curated suggestions for movies, music, exercises, nearby activities and mental health resources.

“Ultimately, we wanted to create an app that would make people feel more supported and help them channel their emotions in a positive way,” says Zahiremami.

The app won second place in senior division of the competition’s regional SFU pitch event in April 2016.

After finishing high school, the team members each embarked on their next adventures. But Zahiremami, who joined SFU’s mechatronics program last September, felt the app had more potential.

With permission from the original team, she got together with SFU mechatronics students Achini Amadara and Sam Mik to improve the app and further develop the idea.

“I was like, ‘Let’s go girls!’ I pitched the idea, and they were onboard right away. We think this app has real potential to help people, and we were all excited about taking it forwards.”

With good reason. In February 2017, the team won the Female Founder Award at the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize, a competition recognizing entrepreneurial excellence at SFU.

With their award—a cash prize totalling $2,500—the team plans to create a similar app with enhanced user interface (UI) design and extra features, including a potential group chat option.

“Currently we are brainstorming app designs and conducting marketing research,” says Zahiremami.

“We hope to get more students involved—we need a business expert and more coders— and want to get it finished and up in the App Store by next fall.”

Zahiremami credits the Technovation Challenge, Appnovation mentors, and her Rockridge High School teammates—Christina Macleod, Akcinya Kootchin and Ellla Kuypers— for the app’s continued success.

“We learned so much from Technovation—a lot about coding, of course, but also how to work as a team and create a business plan, which I wouldn’t have known anything about before,” says Zahiremami.

“We worked really well together as a team, and I couldn’t have done it without being part of such a strong group.”

Zahiremami also has a clear message to other girls considering taking part the Technovation Challenge.

“There is no winning or losing in Technovation,” she says. “I would urge you to take the risk, take the challenge. You will learn so much, and your hard work will pay off.”

She is equally positive when asked about engineering as a pathway for other girls and women.

“Building stuff is the future. If you have a passion for making things that could change the world, you should go for it.”

As a Technovation Challenge regional partner, SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences will be hosting the 2017 B.C. Regional Pitch Event on Saturday, May 6.