The Umiiversity app tackling isolation
Nova, the Liverpool-based tech cofoundery have provided us with another great startup to speak to. This time we chat to Georgia Wheadon, Founder of Umii, the app designed to tackle lonliness at uni.
Tell me about your startup and what they do?
Umii is a university-based social networking app combating student isolation. Almost half of UK students admit to feelings of loneliness during their time at university, with 1 in 6 saying they were unable to make lasting friendships.
Students are constantly looking for ways to connect and typically this is done through Facebook and Whatsapp groups. But building friendships in these groups is difficult. There are so many different, unofficial freshers groups to choose from and for less-outgoing students, posting a message can be intimidating. There is also limited safeguarding - anyone can pose as a student!
Umii helps students with similar interests to connect within a safe and secure network from the day that they apply, to the day they graduate. Smoothing the transition into University life, combatting isolation and improving the retention and mental wellbeing of students.
Where did the idea come from?
I suffered from isolation and loneliness at university. I didn’t click with my flatmates and being a joint honours student, meant I saw different people every day. It was difficult to grow close bonds with other students.
We live in a digital age, where face to face introductions are becoming less socially acceptable. Random introductions in coffee shops, bars and even the library are becoming rare as millennials prefer to replace the nerve-wracking feeling of approaching a stranger with the easy message to a digital profile.
I started speaking with other graduates about their time at uni and many of them experienced the same feelings as me. I thought, “There are 1000s of students at uni, so nobody should feel lonely. We just need a modern way to help students connect with the right people.”
How long have you been going?
Umii was cofounded in 2017 with Nova and began carrying out research with over 40 UK universities throughout that year. From our findings, we were then able to build the Umii MVP and piloted at 4 universities in January 2019. To date, Umii has an active community of over 2000 students in various locations across the UK.
What have some of the biggest challenges been?
Initially we struggled to get universities on board due to concerns about their student’s safety. The biggest issue with current alternatives used by students, such as Whatsapp and Facebook groups, is that they have really poor safeguarding - anyone can join! We’ve really taken the time to work closely with our partnering uni’s to elicit a strict verification process for users. Once a university partners with us, only students with a verified university specific email address can use the app and suspicious accounts can be reported and blocked to manage potential antisocial behaviour.
How have you managed through the COVID-crisis and lockdown?
Due to social distancing, Universities are making plans to start most of the upcoming academic year online. Meaning it is likely students will miss out on freshers’ - a crucial time for students to make friends at university. Therefore Umii has become a vital tool for students to build those essential friendships before and during university.
Prospective uni students have had a lot more time during lockdown to start connecting with their future uni mates. I noticed that students were posting on group chats and Facebook groups as early as February, meaning that students were keen to start connecting. To meet this demand, Umii has been working with a number of universities and connecting students in areas (such as Leeds, London, Hull and Liverpool) to help them meet one another virtually and safely in the comfort of their own homes ahead of term time.
Have you had to make any big changes and how have you pivoted and adapted?
Our target market may not have changed, but their attitudes have.
Through a focus on our new users during lockdown, we noticed that student’s anxieties and worries about joining university were through the roof. Students were keen to have answers for the best halls to apply for, the nightlife and general experience. In response to this we added ‘Umii ambassadors’ to the app - these are graduates, current students or union presidents who are there to answer any questions students may have. Overall, this added feature has been a success!
How has COVID affected your business?
Even though student isolation has been a serious ongoing problem for universities, I don’t think it was fully understood how important it is to address until the COVID-19 restrictions came into play - and what knock on effect this has for young people at important stages of their life.
The app has had a huge increase in downloads and a 2000%+ uplift in daily active users. The overwhelming response from university students has sparked the interest of several new university partners. We’re now in meeting with several Universities to discuss how Umii can be integrated to support their student onboarding and retention.
What does the future have in store for you?
We want to become the norm for students to meet friends at University. Making it easier for those who find face to face interactions difficult or struggle to meet friends with similar interests as them at university. But above all, we want to reduce the amount of people at university who suffer from poor mental health as a result of loneliness, isolation and decrease the amount of early degree terminations.
Do you have any advice for other startups out there?
Find opportunities in everything! Be optimistic, believe that great things will happen and treat the negative times as just minor setbacks to overcome and learn from.