Three years after they had landed in Canada from Russia, Mikhail and Vera Kelim’s lives took a sharp turn.
It was on Feb. 24, 2022 that the Russia-Ukraine war began, and having close friends in both places, the Waterloo, Ont.-based couple found themselves in shock. They also felt a sense of duty towards those who were affected by the conflict.
“I was inundated with calls and messages from people I knew, and I also made myself available to offer support,” recalled Vera, who works as a psychotherapist.
She said that despite her efforts, she was conscious that more could be done to support those who were in acute distress. There were people in bomb shelters and train stations waiting for evacuation, and they could not receive help because of their situation.
“A couple of days later, my husband inquired whether there were any common themes, expressions, or exercises I was frequently using when helping people. The idea of developing an app emerged,” she said.
As a serial entrepreneur, Mikhail had previously co-founded two successful technology companies before moving to Canada. First was Prian, which became a popular Russian portal in the international real estate sphere. Then, he co-launched Kolesa, a digital media company that specialized in the automotive industry.
“Combining Vera’s domain of crisis psychology and my extensive tech experience, I felt we were exceptionally situated to create something. Even if I had never created a chatbot, I’ve successfully built innovative products, so I felt confident enough to try,” Mikhail said.
The app, called Faino, is a free psychological support chatbot on Telegram. It provides individuals with on-demand tools to cope with stress, anxiety and emotions. The idea is to help users gain resilience and retake control of their lives.
The app was launched in 24 days with the support of leading psychologists, developers, designers and translators from around the world.
Initially, Mikhail said Faino was intended for people who were struggling with war-related stress, but the benefits it provided were quickly grasped by the population at large.
“We found that Faino was helping people with issues that we did not foresee initially,” he said. “For example, it has assisted people prior to exams, interviews or speeches, and also helps people calm down if they are having an argument. Some users even rely on Faino’s help to sleep better after a difficult day.”
He said Faino has also provided key psychological support to over 8,000 people affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and expanded the geographic scope of the application.
“We recently launched Faino’s Hebrew version, and are making Faino available to Israelis,” he said. “We are also looking for volunteers for the Arabic version, so we hope we will do that, too.”
He said Faino has been used by over 53,000 people around the world so far, and more than 74 per cent have reported feeling immediate emotional relief. Based on this, the couple’s next step is to create a version of Faino that can be commercialized. They are also planning a version for entrepreneurs, in order to help them prevent burnout, all while keeping the chatbot’s key capabilities available for free for those who need them the most.
Mikhail and Vera say they find inspiration in Canada’s welcoming environment, which has resulted in one of the most multicultural places in the world.
“We appreciate how Canada fosters a safe and respectful environment where people of various cultures and nationalities can coexist harmoniously.”
“Also, the Kitchener-Waterloo area is a region brimming with innovation and creativity, providing an inspiring atmosphere that greatly motivates us.”
Javier Ortega-Araiza has multiple global experiences as a storyteller and social entrepreneur having travelled to over 30 countries. Now based in Toronto, he is a published author in both English and Spanish."