Elemental: The Derry start-up with a prescription for better health outcomes

Elemental: The Derry start-up with a prescription for better health outcomes

A prescription from your doctor usually entails some form of medication. It might even come as strict lifestyle advice, prescribing a regime of diet or exercise to improve your health. But there’s also something called social prescribing, which is the business of tech-for-good start-up Elemental Software.

Social prescribing is the practice of connecting people to social activities in their community via their health service. Your own GP might give you a social prescription, or you might discuss it with a specialised social prescribing coordinator.

People who have been given a social prescription describe how the push to commit to a regular social activity has helped them break out of damaging routines, getting out of the house and back to society. We all know eating well, good sleep hygiene and regular exercise will keep us well, yet sometimes we need a nudge to meet these fundamentals of healthy living. Social activity is just as necessary for wellbeing, and just as easily slips into bad habits that need a course correction.

‘We know how important it is to free up the time of the workers on the ground’

Derry start-up Elemental offers a digital solution for social prescribing in the UK and Ireland. Along with its main platform, Elemental Core, it offers a suite of complementary products underpinning every point in the social prescribing journey.

“We like to think our tech has simply mirrored and digitised the social prescribing workflow that exists on the ground in the community,” explained co-founder Leeann Monk-Özgül.

This technology has to “bend and shape” to fit with the many variables encountered with social prescribing, Monk-Özgül added. Elemental is inserting itself into a process that brings together individuals seeking care, healthcare practitioners and then community groups, volunteers and social enterprises. It’s a complex web but the platform manages to weave the threads together in order to connect these stakeholders, effectively opening up referral routes into programmes and services.

The platform doesn’t stop working there, either. It carries through with digital workflows to support follow-up contact, driving engagement with prescribed programmes and measuring their effectiveness. This tail-end is critical to the improvement of social prescribing as well as identifying gaps in service provision that need to be addressed.

“Coming from a community development background and playing the role of a social prescribing link worker in the community (before the term was even invented), we know how important it is to free up the time of the workers on the ground,” said Monk-Özgül. “Having a digital platform that underpins their whole journey allows them to just do that, so they can concentrate on supporting the people in the community that need it most.”

‘We quickly recognised that the missing piece of the puzzle was digital’

Elemental currently helps to connect more than 75,000 people across the UK and Ireland to activities and support services in their local community. The platform can be used across a variety of services, including healthcare, housing, local government, the voluntary sector, social enterprise, prison services and student welfare offices in universities.

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“The beauty about social prescribing is that no one sector owns it and the very nature of social prescribing is about all sectors working together so we give people the best chance at life,” said Monk-Özgül.

Both founders – COO Monk-Özgül and CEO Jennifer Neff – come from a community development background working with disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland.

“Neither of us are techies,” said Monk-Özgül. “Prior to co-founding Elemental, I helped establish and manage a healthy living centre for 15 years in a socially deprived neighbourhood in Derry city. As programme manager, I managed the strategic review and coordination of programmes and services all based around the ethos of making it easier for people to lead a healthy lifestyle using a community development approach.”

The founders met at a meeting setting out plans for Derry’s stint as the first UK City of Culture in 2013. “Jennifer and I were both really frustrated that despite there being loads of brilliant community programmes happening on people’s doorsteps, a lot of the time they were not remotely aware. We knew that people needed more support to attend and engage in these activities. It’s not enough to hand someone a phone number and expect them to go along,” said Monk-Özgül.

Public money was being spent on these community initiatives, but Monk-Özgül said there was nothing in terms of analysing outcomes, engagements, service gaps or even health risk hotspots. “They needed a better understanding of what was available and what was to inform their commissioning and recommissioning decisions,” she said.

“We quickly found out that social prescribing had been around for years and when you scratch the surface, it’s basically the community development approach to health improvement that we have all been doing for over 40 years. However, we also quickly recognised that the missing piece of the puzzle was digital.”

‘More thought needs to go into how we give the people in Derry more confidence to go for it if they have an idea’

A dramatic increase in adoption of Elemental has been credited to the Covid-19 crisis. Monk-Özgül said this underlines the vital role the social prescribing model of care can play in helping people cope with the impact of the pandemic.

Over the past year, the company’s customer base grew alongside the team itself. In February, Invest NI supported an investment of more than £1m in the business, creating eight new roles.

“We are now up to a team of 35 from a team of three [just] three years ago. We are well on track to meet our financial targets after our best quarter to date. We have an amazing customer retention rate and our customers love our tech,” said Monk-Özgül.

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Earlier this year, the company was named among the top 10 rising stars of UK tech by Tech Nation. The Rising Stars awards have previously honoured the likes of Skyscanner, Monzo and Darktrace, so the win put Elemental in great company and the process itself saw the team develop their pitch and business proposition.

One challenge for the company when it came to arranging meetings and pitches has been the lack of transport links in Derry. “With no major airports near and most of our customer based in England you can see the challenges we met, especially at the beginning of the start-up journey when Jennifer and I were doing everything ourselves,” said Monk-Özgül.

However, she said that since Covid-19, contacts aren’t as “obsessed” with face-to-face meetings. “Lockdown has made many organisations realise business can be done and done well – and sometimes better – online. I am glad now to say what was once a big challenge is no longer a challenge.”

Overall, Monk-Özgül believes Derry has some way to go being a start-up city. Belfast offers the Elemental team a busy calendar of events and networking opportunities, but their hometown is in need of its own social prescription. “More thought needs to go into how we give the people in this city more confidence to go for it if they have an idea. Places like Catalyst do great work but there needs to be more Derry-focused initiatives,” she said.

“Derry has a lot to offer for a growing start-up, great talent, great affordable office space and very affordable cost of living. Also, we are friendly people and great craic!”

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