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Wednesday, Feb 1, 2023

Fighting Suicide With Software

El Segundo-based Liminex Inc. envisions a profitable business model behind its socially conscious idea of using educational technology to help prevent adolescent suicides.

The company, which does business as GoGuardian, uses proprietary software to track kindergarten-through-12th-grade students’ internet activity on school-issued electronic devices. The software scans for online activity that could suggest suicidal tendencies.

Liminex charges a licensing fee – roughly $6 per device per year – for the service, which also delivers automatic mental health reports on potentially at-risk students to a school counselor.

A report from Inc. magazine’s August special edition on fast-growing companies listed Liminex’s annual revenue at $14.7 million for 2017, reflecting an estimated 60 percent annual increase – figures the company confirmed.

Liminex’s rapid growth was apparently enough to catch the attention of Foster City-based private equity firm Sumeru Equity Partners Inc., which purchased the firm in May for 10 times the revenue reported to Inc. – or at least $147 million – according to co-founders Advait Shinde and Tyler Shaddix, who hold the titles of chief executive and chief product officer, respectively.

Liminex isn’t the only firm in the educational technology sector getting traction.

Monroe, Wa.-based analyst Metaari Advanced Learning Technology Research reported in January that global ed-tech investments spiked to $9.6 billion dollars in 2017, a 31 percent increase over 2016. Metaari also reported a record 813 ed-tech companies received funding in 2017. Companies that focused on the Pre-K-through-12th grade market saw 13 percent of the total funding in 2017, some $1.2 billion.

Eric Reiter, partner at Brentwood Associates, said his Santa Monica-based private equity firm has seen strong investor interest in ed-tech, particularly in the early childhood sector.

“Recent acquisitions by leading private equity firms at very robust acquisition multiples certainly validates this trend, and with continued scientific support behind the importance of early education, and the growing interest in universal pre-K, we expect this sector to have long term secular growth,” Reiter said in an email.

Brentwood has made several investments in the ed-tech space but is not an investor in Liminex.

The company nonetheless seems to have “disruption and scalability” that “have been key themes that attract investors,” Reiter said.

A trend of schools turning to technology to facilitate learning and boost classroom engagement presents a growing opportunity to identify children who may be contemplating suicide and intervene before they act, Shaddix said.

“One-fifth of students will consider suicide by the time they finish high school, and in this crisis, they need help …but students growing up in this era aren’t going to people that know them – instead they’re going online,” Shaddix said.

Pilot program

Liminex software generated roughly 2,000 mental health alerts per week over the course of a seven-month pilot program that ran from January to August 2017 and included 10 schools and roughly 5 million students nationwide.

Former Los Angeles Unified School District coordinator of health education Lori Vollandt worked as an adviser on the project.

Shinde said the company is in talks with LAUSD and hopes it will become a customer.

Shaddix emphasized students are given notice that Liminex software will track their activity on school-issued devices. Schools are obligated under federal law to monitor student internet use on school-devices.

Shaddix said Liminex is mindful of privacy concerns with its software and system.

“We set this up not to collect screenshots at all times, but only when the A.I. triggers with confidence there’s an incident,” said Shaddix.

Queries to cyberspace about methods of suicide or searches for counseling, for example, would generally be considered triggers.

Shinde said the company is legally prevented from using its data for marketing or advertising purposes.

The focus on what might be red flags is the key in any case.

“This approach is the only way to enable the modern internet to be successful,” Shinde said. “The URL tells you almost nothing. Most students aren’t using the word suicide, so using AI we were able to break into this whole area of students who were unseen and alert schools that this was problematic,” Shinde added.

Broad feedback

Schools who purchase Liminex’s software will have some initial support from several suicide prevention organizations.

Liminex partnered in June with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which will provide free suicide prevention and counseling training for schools using the company’s software. Liminex said it received feedback from more than 100 guidance counselors and consulted the AFSP, American School Counselors Association and the American Association of Suicidology in creating the program, which it dubbed Beacon.

“It started with basic education and conversation around what does put people at risk for suicide, what that might manifest as in certain behaviors especially online, and as they were training their AI, we’ve gone through different scenarios of searches,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, AFSP’s chief medical officer.

Shaddix said Liminex has “no monetary relationship at all” with AFSP.

Shaddix said he expects the internet will continue to grow as a learning tool, and making sure students use it safely will become more of an education priority.

“Schools are thinking more broadly about digital citizenship and for many students this is the main first device they use to access internet, so the school is responsible for teaching students how to use it appropriately,” said Shaddix.


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