Kirsi Ekberg: Improving the physical activity of children with playful technology

Children nowadays spend more time in front of the screen for entertainment rather than being physically active. Excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally. Such developmental delays can not only impact a child’s learning process but can also serve as a barrier to their academic success. With the mission of harnessing technology to support the healthy growth of children and youth, Klaukkala, Uusimaa based Vilike develops playful new technology for health, happiness, and education. Most of the content in mobile devices is physically passivating. Founded in 2014 Vilike, built with cutting-edge computer vision technology, activates to move, enables motor skill assessment along with the play, and conducts analysis on skills development. This new data on motor skills growth supports individual growth and brings new data on development at the national and eventually at the global level. 

In this feature, we are pleased to be interviewing the founder and CEO of Vilike Kirsi Ekberg about her experiences as a woman EdTech entrepreneur.

Aspioneer (A): Please share with us a little bit about your past. How did your formative years prepare you for the position you are at today?

Kirsi Ekberg (K): “Life before Vilike was all about sports and arts. I played football as a semi-professional for a decade, in Finland and the US. I was brought up on the forest farm and was given the freedom to grow with an endless curiosity and creativity close to nature. Now as a mother, I understand the value of those moments, as part of making the core of me. That core from childhood combined with grit learned from lessons of failures and success in football has shaped me the heart of an entrepreneur. 

Vilike is an intuitive thing I feel that I must make happen, no matter what. Every child I see stuck with their mobiles, every parent struggling with screen rage keeps me focused and helps me cease the struggles: we must change the content and the way we build technology in order to have it serve the growth during childhood.

(A): How did the idea for your business come about and how did you raise funding for your venture?

(K): Vilike got started in a lecture by Ph.D. Of Sport Science Arja Sääkslahti about children’s motor and perceptual skills. She introduced us to APM inventory, a method invented to help in assessing development. Part of our studies was to conduct the assessment with children and as done since 1994, we collected the data with pen and paper. I lost all the papers and all the data. At the same time, I was studying ICT BBA and started thinking that maybe, technology could help in saving and researching that data with modern tools. I went to talk about the idea of a new Start-up school at my Haaga-Helia UAS. Their support was great and as my thesis work placement with little funding from Finnish Invention Foundation, www.apm-testisto.fi was born. I greeted an employment agency advised to start a company. I started Vilike alone, without knowing that the shares can be sold.

We must change the content and the way we build technology in order to have it serve the growth during childhood.

Ever since, after testing the first software version with UKK-institute as the first customer and failing with 3e 10000 lines of data due to my mistake in the backend, 3e has developed 4 prototypes yet none launched. When I met my co-founder/Chief Games Officer Jenni Nadin in 2016 we started working on the story around the APM inventory method so the motor skills activation is more fun for children. I met our co-founder/CTO Sarthak Tripathi in Junction hackathon 2018 where we developed TrafficAye AI for smart cities to follow and control real-time emission flow from street light cameras. Our CFO Vesa Wuorinen I met when I was looking for an accountant to help with the business side as it still is not my “cup of tea”. Backend for the fifth version built with computer Vision is done and now we are deploying rough proto behind a subscription model we are launching soon with interactive Vili’s Playbook and some other content supporting parents in agitating their children/youth into physical activity.

(A): What kind of culture exists in your organization, and how did you establish it?

(K): “Like in soccer, I was a center-midfielder never a captain. Via Vilike I’ve struggled with the traditional CEO as a leader perspective cause I’m not a natural-born leader made to command people. I trust open co-creation and holacracy where every team member is a leader and together, we make things go forward without waiting for someone to tell the other one to do something. And in this wave of creating new, common trust on that intuitive thrive to build unknown, is the only way forward.” 

(A): How do you define success? Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

(K): “First, I would question the meaning of success. Some people measure it by numbers or amount of money in the bank account. For me, it’s the personal growth, curiosity, and shared love for our mission that raises Vilike towards its vision. If we all as founders, get to learn and grow along eventually making a happy impact on health and education, we have succeeded. On a more philosophical level, I see success rising like the words by Grand Master Oogway in Kung-Fu Panda “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. This moment is a gift. That’s why it’s called present.”

Kirsi Ekberg, Founder & CEO, Vilike.
Kirsi Ekberg, Founder & CEO, Vilike.

(A): What drives you to keep going when things get tough?

(K): “Going forward, either working or just being there roots me to reality with nature. We humans have very little time here on earth so it’s good to remember, we are part of something way bigger, and even though how much we thrive to pursue our mission and dreams, some things just happen when time is right, no matter what we do. Also, seeing children and families, winds me that there is a way to do things differently so that the digital one day can support them in life instead of bringing more stress. This makes me forget my failures and accept that I don’t need to know how to do everything, I just can’t give up.”

(A): After all this success, what do you struggle with now?

(K): “Finding the frontend developer to build the visual side of the solution so we can finally offer Vilike to people. Also finding the right investor seems to be as challenging as finding that true love of our lives.”

(A): What are your views and hopes when it comes to gender equality? 

(K): “In Finland, we only have one word for he/she, it’s hän. I hope we all, can treat each other with respect as humans and forget the sex. I hope people can forget biases and start finding the balance of power when both men and women unite to build the future in peace.”

(A): What one piece of advice would you give to any aspiring female business leaders reading this?

(K): “Follow your intuition and believe in your dreams. Speak freely out loud and give time for life to support your voyage. Never give up.”

I hope people can forget biases and start finding the balance of power when both men and women unite to build the future in peace.

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