Depression and anxiety have been on the rise in children. The HSE reports that almost 1 in 4 young people may experience depression before they are 19. The disruption this causes to their lives and education is significant. Project One Sky is a New Frontiers startup that is changing how we help young people develop their social, mental, and physical health. We talked to founder Dr Colm Fallon to find out more.
First things first, what’s the elevator pitch for Project One Sky?
Project One Sky is a human development and wellbeing programme designed to nurture resilience and to help students cope with and flourish in the modern world. Its aim is twofold – to teach students to look after their own physical and mental health in the context of a rapidly changing social, cultural, and technological world, as well as to affect society in a positive manner by focussing on the ethical components of wellbeing.
How did your own background shape the business?
I always say this company was 20 years in the making as I had mental health issues myself as a young adult. Academically, I had always done extremely well. Until I didn’t. The result of this was I ended up dropping out of university. When I returned to education some time later, I had already decided that I wanted something more from the experience than just a job. I was studying physics at university and started travelling a lot, becoming very interested in philosophy, yoga, and spirituality. I went on to obtain my PhD in Experimental Physics, then became a post-doctoral fellow and researcher. However, I didn’t want a career as a scientist, so I became a physics and science teacher in a secondary school.
How did the idea for Project One Sky come about?
I saw that wellbeing was starting to be introduced to curriculums globally. It was superseding subjects such as SPHE, CSPE, PE, and religious education here in Ireland. I saw there was an opportunity to teach all the things I had been learning about mindfulness, personal development, resilience, and healthy choices. Essentially, I felt we could better prepare students – socially and emotionally – for life in the digital age. This is what prompted me to start teaching wellbeing at the school where I worked, and the idea of Project One Sky grew from there.
What was the early stage of the business like?
I got onto Phase 1 of New Frontiers at TU Dublin – Blanchardstown Campus in 2018, but I didn’t manage to secure a place on Phase 2 when I applied. As a result, I took a year to focus on developing my business idea. Working with two schools in particular, I developed my MVP and then re-applied for the programme, at which point I got on. Phase 2 was very intensive and a lot of hard work, but I was absolutely ready for it by that point. I was starting to build my client base when the pandemic hit, which obviously affected the company significantly. I had to pivot how the business worked and how we delivered our programmes. But going online actually allowed us to scale much faster, so I was able to increase our customer base by 500%.
I had never built a website before, so that was a learning curve for me. I managed to bootstrap the website and video editing until I could get help with it. I developed a network of experts (sleep experts, nutritionists, etc.) around the country, who could deliver the video content we needed to make the courses engaging. This is how we developed the digital workshops that were ready to be delivered in the classroom, facilitated by a teacher who can organise the time and help to lead in-class discussions.
What is covered in the programme?
I wanted to go into a wide range of topics that might be relevant for young people. I didn’t just want to cover ‘easy’ topics but get into deeper, more philosophical or challenging themes as well. There are 10 modules in total:
- The natural world
- Truth telling
- Ethical smartphone use
- Positive habit forming
Everything is delivered over an online learning management platform to make it easy for the school to fit it into their timetable. There are no logistical issues, they have access to the materials for the whole year and it’s up to them when and how they use it. Our experts present their topics by video and there are additional materials to help the teachers lead class discussions and project work. We’ve also used gamification tactics to make sure that students will stay engaged.
What’s next for Project One Sky?
I’ve started to grow my team, which has been challenging in the pandemic. Right now, I’m focusing on talking to potential customers about signing up for the 2021-22 academic year as this has to be finalised before the schools break for the summer.
We’ve had excellent feedback from the schools currently running our programmes, and from students themselves. We will continue to roll out into Irish schools – both at junior cert and leaving cert level. After that, a next step for us will be getting into the UK market. Wellbeing isn’t as integrated into the curriculum over there, but it seems that schools are very receptive to this type of approach.
And finally, what key piece of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs starting out?
Over the past year, there were times when my own and my company’s capabilities were stretched to their limits. What helped me through those times was knowing that my project could make a real difference to people’s lives. My advice to others would be: don’t be an entrepreneur for the sake of it; rather, choose to do something that’s bigger than you. And, of course, look after your wellbeing!
About the author
Scarlet Bierman is a content consultant, commissioned by Enterprise Ireland to fulfil the role of Editor of the New Frontiers website. She is an expert in designing and executing ethical marketing strategies and passionate about helping businesses to develop a quality online presence.