I left corporate world to help people living with dementia
Mansata Kurang never saw herself as an entrepreneur but says she is “living the dream” after leaving behind the corporate world to found start-up VR Revival.
Kurang was recently recognised on the Maserati 100 list of the UK’s most innovative entrepreneurs for her work in helping people living with dementia.
The daughter of educated parents, she grew up in Gambia, West Africa, before moving to the UK at the age of 16.
“I never saw myself as an entrepreneur – never, ever,” she told BusinessCloud. “Both of my parents were very educated: my dad's a medical doctor. The expectations were for me to go down a traditional path.
“I was always very creative as a child and very good as designing and building things, but I never had the opportunity to explore that.
“I wanted to do something that was helping people, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. I feel so much empathy – I don't like seeing people in pain.”
After a five-year stint in the City she set up the Freestyle 4 Africa Foundation, a creative technology charity which facilitates the sharing of creative content online while providing grants to educational, artistic and creative projects in Africa.
However it was during an external leadership development programme at PwC that she “got the courage to do what I wanted to do”.
“I love learning and seeing myself grow. It was a switch in mindset,” she said. “I'm living the dream now, but it's just the start. It feels right.”
People who develop the symptoms of dementia tend to lose more recent memories, which means they can still reminisce about their childhood and early adulthood.
“We're providing 360-degree videos which are calm and peaceful, with beautiful scenery, that they can relate to,” she explained of her virtual reality tech.
“If they used to love going to the beach but are now stuck in a care home and can't do that anymore, we can put them in that scenario with the waves, the seagulls... it is very therapeutic.”
The content is viewed through any VR headset and links via bluetooth to a nearby iPhone or iPad, allowing family members or carers to view the content.
This empowers the patient, putting them in control of the experience, but also means they are not isolated.
“We encourage pair viewing, where they're controlling the headset but they have someone next to them also going through that experience who can guide them through it,” said Kurang.
“Technology can be isolating and that's not what we want for this. We want it to be a social experience.
“Initially we're working with the black and ethnic minority communities because we find there is a large lack of awareness in those communities and also a lot of stigma and lack of education.
“We've got content which focuses on scenes in Africa, the Caribbean... memory can also be triggered with music. Many of these individuals are immigrants and are sat in a care home that is bland and there's nothing there – something like this can help bring back those childhood memories.”
The UK’s cultural approach to caring for elderly family members is very different to that seen in West Africa, says Kurang.
“In Gambia you take care of your elders and they are always around the family – often people die within the family home. There's this element of togetherness and social interaction. It’s a different culture,” she said.
“In the UK everyone's working, and sending parents to care homes is part of the culture. A young person could visit grandma in a care home and say 'would you like to go to the beach today?'
“That's the vision I had – the togetherness where the younger people can interact with the older generation while empowering the older generation with that extra social element.”
VR Revival is working with the Selhurst Medical Centre and the Calabash Day Centre to test out its product, which was built by Kurang – who has a background in mathematics – after she taught herself to code.
“Everyone we have tested it on loves it,” she said, adding that she is now looking for angel investors with an interest in HealthTech or dementia to back her business and help her produce more content.
Appearing on the Maserati 100 list will certainly help. “It was really nice and shows this is a product that the public really wants,” she reflected.
“It's been hard financially but it's worth it – I don’t care because I'm happy.”