Making a difference


A free open-source program allows the visually impaired to operate computers by reading out to them what is on the screen. — SAM THAM/The Star

The startup scene is flourishing. Just late last year ride-hailing ­service Grab became Malaysia’s first unicorn – a startup with more than US1bil (RM4.06bil) market value.

While many have yet to reach the status of unicorn, we are seeing more and more startups tackling issues in unique ways.

Here are eight startups that might just change the way you do things.

Predicting outbreaks

Fighting dengue is a costly affair. According to the Cost of Dengue Vector Control Activities in Malaysia, US$73.5mil (RM316mil) or 0.03% of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) was spent on the National Dengue Vector Control Program in 2010.

Dr Dhesi Raja, a doctor with a keen interest in epidemiology ­(disease control) and the latest tech, says he has created a dengue prediction engine called Aime (Artificial Intelligence In Medical Epidemiology) that could tip the fight in our favour.

“Currently authorities perform ‘search and destroy’ actions such as eliminating larvae sites and ­fogging but those are reactive approaches which can only be taken when there is a reported case,” says Dr Dhesi.

Early warning: Dr Dhesi hopes to predict dengue outbreaks before they happen so that fogging and cleaning can be carried out early. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star
Dr Dhesi hopes to predict dengue outbreaks before they happen so that fogging and cleaning can be carried out early. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star
 

“With Aime and its predictive capabilities, we can move from reactive to a proactive approach by taking action before an outbreak happens.”

He claims that by using AI, the system can predict an outbreak up to three months in advance with an accuracy of up to 88% and ­identify the location to within a 400m radius.

In order for the system to ­accurately make a prediction, it needs to be fed with 23 types ­variables such as rain volume, wind speed, wind direction, solar radiation, population density and geographical terrain.

Dr Dhesi and his team of six international experts are now in Brazil to deploy the system as part of the dengue prevention efforts for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

He is planning on releasing a mobile app for Android and iOS in October so the public too can help in preventing the next dengue ­outbreak.

Funding education

It’s a well-known fact that higher education is not cheap. The ­continuous commercialisation of education along with the rising cost of living has made it harder for students to pursue their dreams.

Four undergraduate students – Tengku Ahmad Syamil Tengku Ibrahim, Muhammad Wildan Zulfikar, Muhammad Syakir Hashim and Mohamed Faruq Mohamed Rasid – hope to change that with their crowdfunding site Skolafund.

Skolafund allows students to raise funds for university fees and stipends by sourcing money from the public.

The idea for the platform came about when Ahmad Syamil was in the first year of studies and spotted a post on the university’s unofficial Facebook group by a student expressing his struggles in securing financial support.

“Both his parents were sick and he worked part time to support the family. It was still insufficient for him to pay for his tuition fees and other burdens he was shouldering.”

“He wanted to know if there were any organisations that could help him. To my surprise hundreds of users requested for his bank account to help out.”

To date the platform has raised over RM150,000 for 28 students. It’s only for tertiary and ­postgraduate studies but Ahmad Syamil hopes to include primary and secondary schools as well.

Personal assistant

Concierge service Helpr, founded by former Groupon alumni Ang Kok Seong, Eujean Lee and Wafiq Rodzuan, aims to be your personal assistant for almost anything you can think off.

This includes buying and ­delivering furniture to your house, or even something as simple as ­getting a cup of coffee from your favourite joint.

He says Helpr has even received requests to apologise to a friend after a quarrel and finding a ­boyfriend.

Ang says one of the most popular requests Helpr gets is to buy and deliver furniture from Ikea. — SAM THAM/The Star
Ang says one of the most popular requests Helpr gets is to buy and deliver furniture from Ikea. — SAM THAM/The Star
 

“It’s not realistic for people to request help for simple, easily achievable tasks, and we are trying to tackle those that are time ­consuming and inconvenient for the buyers to do it themselves,” says Ang.

Shopping requests for Ikea ­products, where it handles the ­purchase and delivery process on behalf of the user, is one of the most popular requests for Helpr. Other popular requests include flower and urgent document ­deliveries.

Ang says Helpr was inspired by the popular SMS-based concierge service Magic in the United States.

“We started with SMS but ­eventually realised that while it works in the United States, it doesn’t mean it will work here,” he says.

Helpr now supports requests via WhatsApp, Wechat and Facebook Messenger which are more popular than SMS here.

The startup has already rolled out automated chatbot responses for Messenger and is looking to replicate it for other platforms.

Find a doctor

Despite being a medical supplier, Jerry Hang couldn’t get a reliable doctor to treat his father who was diagnosed with colon cancer. Even though he had the money to spend, he was made to go from one ­hospital to another in search of a good doctor.

Sadly, he couldn’t save his father – that was when Hang thought there had to be a better way.

“If we could buy everything and book a flight using technology, why should healthcare be any different?” says Hang.

He teamed up with Chris Ching, who also had faced a similar ­experience, to launch GetDoc in 2014.

“There is so much more we can do in terms of healthcare ­treatment from reducing waiting time, providing easier access to healthcare and doctor’s information, and doing it online anytime, anywhere,” says Ching.

GetDoc, which is available in Malaysia and Singapore, allows users to book an appointment with a doctor from its website or app.

Users can search according to distance, specific illness, insurance provider and doctor’s gender. Currently, it has 1,139 doctors on board in Malaysia and 4,097 doctors in Singapore.

“GetDoc started because we wanted to address our pain points. We don’t want others to walk in our shoes again,” says Ching.

Choose your adventure

If you are into short road trips, off-road adventures or even a weekend retreat in the outskirts, you might want to check out the new startup LocalUsher.

LocalUsher runs a website with a curated list of interesting and trendy activities in Malaysia and Singapore.

Among the activities listed on the site include rock climbing and zip lining.
Ng and Cheng quit their jobs to start LocalUsher which offers outdoor activities such as rock climbing. — LocalUsher
 

Founded by former IT consultant Sabrina Cheng and software ­engineer Ng Hui Lin, LocalUsher was originally meant to be a little different.

"The idea was to let locals guides show travellers local hotspots or tourist attractions but it didn't work out mainly due to the low availability of the guides," says Cheng.

It soon evolved into what LocalUsher is today – a website for discovering and booking trendy activities.

“It can be glamping (glam ­camping), living on treehouses and capsules, bubble sports and ­paragliding. The list keeps evolving as the trend changes,” says Cheng.

Currently whitewater rafting, themed homestay and pottery classes are among the most ­popular activities on its website.

The site currently boasts over 250 listings and the team plans to ­partner with resort operators and team building companies to ­introduce more activities in the coming months.

It also plans to offer its services in Kedah, Penang, Kelantan and Terengganu.

Dining made easy

Food lovers are spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants and cafes in the Klang Valley.

Having so many options to choose from is great, but it’s still a big challenge to find an ­unoccupied table during peak hours.

“My family runs five restaurants in Penang and I used to help out as a receptionist, waiter and cashier due to staff shortage,” says TableApp founder Benson Chang.

“During peak hours, the phone will keep ringing but we will be too busy to answer.”

This led to the creation of TableApp, an online restaurant booking app.

“When we started three years ago we managed to convince 20 top restaurants to use our system to offer a better booking experience,” says Benson.

“The positive feedback from ­restaurants and customers drove us to continuously improve the booking experience and introduce more features.”

Benson claims TableApp now has over 550 partner restaurants and more than 60,000 active users a month.

Its coverage includes the Klang Valley, and Bangkok, Thailand. It plans to roll it out in Penang and Johor with a target of 800 partner restaurants by year end.

Pet hotel

Most of us probably have heard of Airbnb, a service for renting vacation homes, but did you know there is also a similar service for pets?

Startup Petsodia, founded in 2014, wants to replicate the Airbnb magic for pets.

Petsodia enlists pet lovers to provide services such as boarding and grooming for fur babies.  — Petsodia
Petsodia enlists pet lovers to provide services such as boarding and grooming for fur babies.  — Petsodia
 

Founder Patrick Chang says the idea came about because he always has a hard time securing caretakers for his two lovely King Charles spaniels.

Patrick, a frequent traveller, couldn’t bear seeing his pets being caged up or left unattended.

This inspired him to start ­connecting the pet lover community, which eventually gave birth to Petsodia, a service that allows you to find not just ­boarding but also grooming, ­transportation (domestic and ­international), ­cleaning and ­funeral services for pets.

“It’s a service for pets made ­possible by pet lovers,” he says.

Being a petsitter or caretaker can be rewarding financially too.

“One can easily earn about RM20 to RM60 per day per pet as a ­petsitter and potentially more when handling more than one pet. The rate could go up to RM70 for reputable and specialised ­caretakers,” says Patrick.

There is even a growing trend for owners to hire caretakers for their pets during the day when they are at work.

The site boasts around two ­thousand active users a month which normally peaks during ­festive periods such as Chinese New Year and Hari Raya.

Petsodia is also available in Singapore and Patrick plans to roll it out in Taiwan by year end.

The service is free now but he plans to monetise the platform in the future.

Ray of hope

Stevens Chan was living a ­successful life running a marketing consultancy firm when he was diagnosed with glaucoma in 2002, a condition which shows almost no symptoms and has no cure.

After nine surgeries and accumulating a huge medical bill, his eyesight still couldn’t be saved. It led to Tan having to close down his business but during this ­struggle he discovered the social enterprise Dialogue In The Dark (DID) in Milan, Italy.

Dialogue In The Dark is known for its darkroom experience where visitors go through a tour in ­complete darkness to imitate the daily routine of a visually impaired person.

Chan (third from right) got the idea for training the visually impaired to become call centre personnel after he started Dialogue In The Dark. His idea won RM250,000 seed money from Digi. — SAM THAM/The Star
Chan (third from right) got the idea for training the visually impaired to become call centre personnel after he started Dialogue In The Dark. His idea won RM250,000 seed money from Digi. — SAM THAM/The Star
 

Chan started the franchise here and noticed that his team members who are blind have abilities and capabilities that can contribute to society.

“It’s just that they don’t have the opportunity to showcase their ­talents. I thought they could ­communicate well, so why not start a call centre as they have been interacting with people from all walks of life through our darkroom exhibitions.”

He set up a virtual call centre in Sunway University to train the blind, which is where the ­darkroom is also hosted.

The DID social enterprise startup has since trained over 50 blind people as call centre ­personnel.

According to Tan, the computers at the centre use the open-source NVDA (non-visual desktop access) software, which is available for free, and Noda Contact Centre ­system.

The NVDA software reads out everything on the screen, making it easy for a person who is blind to operate the computer.

Although it’s always a challenge to get funding, Tan is hoping to set up a call centre that can support up to 50 visually impaired people by the year end.

“The call centre is a proven model as the Noda call centre in Russia employs up to 2,500 sight impaired persons and is supported by the Russian government,” he says.

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