Original article Startup Here Toronto by Wendy Haaf

Our goal is to empower families, and get them to spend more time together

Kindness and cruelty can be contagious. Priscilla Zanatelli and Felipe Kinder, saw this firsthand while volunteering at a public school in their native Brazil as part of their degrees in human development. In talking through the problem with Zanatelli’s sister, Beatriz, they struck upon an idea: why not create an app that could help parents teach young kids to start recognizing and managing their emotions? As parents, they would have gladly used such a product had it already existed.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the three founders are well on their way to scaling up Lightouch, globally, thanks in part to the help of Toronto-based non-profit accelerator LatAm Startups.

Long before COVID forced millions of children out of the classroom and away from their friends, the Zanatellis, who have backgrounds in education and human resources, were acutely aware of the importance of social and emotional intelligence. Not only do these skills contribute to kids’ academic success, they also lay the foundations of good mental health and strong supportive relationships. “The sooner you start to learn how to build your resilience and recognize, understand and manage your emotions, the better for you, personally and professionally speaking,” says Beatriz Zanatelli.

And yet arguably even in 2018 when the Zanatellis first presented their idea to LatAm StartUps, the opportunities for kids to naturally learn these skills through in-person interaction had already shrunk considerably compared to when they were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. Today’s kids spend more than twice as much time on screens than they reportedly did in 1999—an average of eight hours per day versus three—probably a good deal of it solo, due to the rise in smartphone and tablet use. And the problem has only increased during the pandemic.

Since obviously, “the technology isn’t going anywhere,” says Priscilla Zanatelli, “we thought, why not an app to teach emotional intelligence?”

The Zanatellis’ solution is more than just an app: it’s a unique educational platform aimed at helping parents and educators empower kids to thrive by learning and building so-called soft skills. “Using technology to reach as many families as possible is the fastest way to show kids the impact positive attitudes can have on their lives,” says Priscilla Zanatelli.

One key component is the game Touli’s World, which allows players aged four to nine to explore different worlds, making choices along the way. For example, the player might watch while a character stumbles and drops a tray of refreshments he was about to serve to friends. The game then presents four different possible ways for the player to respond. And without adults looking on, kids are apt to do so honestly. (Since day one, the Zanatellis have had the advantage of three live-in beta testers: Beatriz’s daughter, now aged six, and Priscilla’s children, now eight and 12.)

The program then provides parents with insights based on the child’s responses, as well as resources such as games and activities along with suggested talking points designed to spark one-on-one learning and family discussions. For example, a child who isn’t yet reading might draw what her expression looks like when she feels sad. “Our goal is to empower families, and get them to spend more time together,” Beatriz says.

Of course, creating a good product is only the first step in establishing a successful business. The Zanatellis knew they needed a diverse and inclusive market that would help validate their product and grow their company, and looked into building their business in Canada. Through LatAm, which is an official sponsor of Canada’s Start Up Visa Program for eligible entrepreneurs who wish to immigrate here to start a business, the Zanatellis applied and were accepted.

“They’ve been with us since late 2018, and have participated in different phases of our programs,” says Miryam Lazarte, CEO of LatAm Startups, which span market valuation, market entry and acceleration. “For us, it’s amazing to be working with this company. We believe our community is truly representative of what the Canadian ecosystem, particularly the Toronto ecosystem wants to be—one that embraces diversity and inclusion,” Lazarte says.

With several hubs that can help entrepreneurs along different stages of their journeys, Toronto offers a particularly favourable climate for nurturing startups. Case in point: Lightouch is also part of the Fifth Wave Connect, which connects participants from women-owned or women-led digital media enterprises with like-minded business leaders, academics and entrepreneurs. The company also received an AC JumpStart grant from the Fed-Dev Ontario funded Accelerator Centre, consisting of seed capital, plus professional mentorship from AC’s in-house team, and access to market research.

Lightouch isn’t yet generating revenue, since they made their product available for free when it launched, and are only now going to begin charging for it. “We wanted to do something good during the pandemic,” says Beatriz Zanatelli.

At the moment, they’re working on attracting more investment. “We’re open for another round so we can do everything we’re hoping for,” Beatriz Zantatelli says.

Those goals include expanding their Canadian staff, launching a cartoon, and establishing partnerships to enable Lightouch to enter markets around the globe.

“We see Lightouch as being a resource that could be offered to kids in schools. Our dream is to actually go forward and one day, help out teenagers as well,” she says. Helping kids build social and emotional intelligence, Zanatelli adds, has become, “a personal mission for us.”