Onigo: the startup that crosses Pokémon GO with escape rooms – and a secret mission to tackle mental health

Entrepreneur Alex Stanley based Onigo loosely on the escape room, but took the popular concept outdoors

Hazel Sheffield
Sunday 02 September 2018 12:49 BST
Alex Stanley came up with the idea for Onigo to encourage people to get active and make new friends
Alex Stanley came up with the idea for Onigo to encourage people to get active and make new friends

On a cold winter’s night in February, two women turned up in Hyde Park in search of an adventure.

Julia Corcoran and her friend had set up a vlog where, once a week, they did an adventurous activity for less than £15 in London. That week they didn’t have an activity planned but had come across an advert for a new game starting in Hyde Park. What Corcoran didn’t know is she was about to become one of the first people to try Onigo, a digital treasure hunt designed by entrepreneur Alex Stanley to encourage people to get active and make new friends.

“I’ll never forget meeting Eleanor and Julia,” Stanley remembers. “They were amazingly good sports.” Stanley explained to the two women about to go on an adventure called HMP Hyde Park where they would have to find answers to clues in the park, to unlock keys and escape from prison in an hour.

At the end of the hour, Corcoran and her friend were running along the Serpentine Lake, chatting and laughing as they tried to reach the finish before time ran out. Stanley felt a lightbulb go on: “There was a real buzz. I remember thinking, ‘This is really cool, here are some people we don’t know, having a good time!’”

Hundreds of people have tried Onigo since the first prototype was created in February. The app works using the same geofencing technology as Pokémon GO to trace a user’s location and unlock keys when they arrive at certain places. But rather than getting players glued to their phones, Stanley set out to make the tech as unobtrusive as possible. Instead, Onigo players concentrate on solving clues about the physical environment and interacting with one another.

At the heart of his mission is the idea that by staying active, participants could be protecting themselves against depression and other mental health issues.

“We want people to get active and meet new people without really knowing it,” Stanley says. “Because not many people would sign up if we told them it was something to prevent them getting poor mental health down the line.”

Stanley was born and raised in London. He has always worked in the health and fitness industry, lately at IMG, a sports management company, where he ran triathlon and endurance events. Two years ago he started working for CALM, a male suicide prevention charity, as a mental health advocate. It was a cause close to his heart. Stanley was 14 when he lost his brother to suicide.

“I liked my day job, but I found meaning and purpose in this,” Stanley says of his work with CALM. “I wanted to raise the profile of the fact that mental health was something you can talk about.”

One day he was telling a friend in the pub about his work for CALM, running events and raising money, and wondering what more he could do. His friend suggested he apply to Zinc, a startup accelerator. Zinc offers a stipend and full-time coaching and workshops to entrepreneurs who want to start businesses with a social purpose. In 2017, Zinc was searching for entrepreneurs passionate about mental health.

Stanley didn’t have the idea for Onigo when he applied to Zinc, but over the course of the programme he explored the opportunity to do something around exercise. “There are clear links with mental health and physical activity,” he says. “I wondered if I could use that to build a business.”

Stanley cites studies that show physical activity can reduce the risk of depression and that social isolation can increase the risk of mortality by up to 25 per cent. “We had just had a marathon sponsored by Heads Together, there was an amazing programme called Mind Over Marathon encouraging people with challenges to come and take part, and then there’s all the evidence,” Stanley says.

“There’s a lot going on in the world to help people with mental health, but not so much around the prevention angle. I was keen to build a business around prevention.”

He imagined an activity that removed the barriers to physical exercise for people who might not ordinarily go to the gym. “In all my years of working in the sports and exercise industry, I feel the industry is very macho and geared to people who are already strong and want to get stronger, which misses out a lot of people. This is more about coming down and meeting some great people.”

Hundreds of people have tried Onigo since the first prototype of the game was created in February

He looked at research from Sports England about the barriers to physical exercise, including expense, lack of time, boredom and self-consciousness. So Stanley set out to make a game that was hyper-local, low cost and social, allowing people to connect with one another online before the actual game took place. He based Onigo loosely on the escape room, but took the popular concept outdoors.

Ella Goldner, a co-founder of Zinc, says Stanley’s game has been successful precisely because he took risks early on in its development, such as inviting Corcoran and her friend to try the game when it was in its early stages. “The more successful ones are the ones who have launched something from the very beginning,” she says of the first cohort of Zinc founders. “Alex worked closely with users from the beginning, and was true to the problem that they are trying to solve.”

Zinc has moved onto its second round of entrepreneurs but maintains a close relationship with the first cohort, who will meet at a public Zinc Connect event in London in September. Meanwhile, Stanley and his first employee, chief technology officer Vikki Read, are planning a seed funding round for September to invest in an app, before the game moves out of London and into parks around the UK. Anyone can sign up to have a go for £10 per play at the two park games available, in Hyde Park and Battersea Park.

Corcoran liked Onigo so much she has played again with friends and used it as a training activity in her work co-ordinating gap year programmes for an NGO. “Because you’re walking or running around, you’re doing a lot of exercise without realising it,” Corcoran says. It was only at the end of their hour-long mission Stanley told them they’d run 3.5 km. He’s even come up a catchphrase for the games: “health by stealth”.

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