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Sri Lankan Startup Tilli is a Finalist in Texas-based SXSW EDU Competition 


At this year’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU conference in Austin, Texas, one of the finalists in the Launch Startup Competition is Tilli, a Sri Lanka-based startup. Tilli's feature product is a social-emotional learning tool designed to teach empathy, collaboration, and co-creation in children ages five to ten years.

The tool is based on the research of one of its co-founders, Kavindya Thennakoon, during her time as a graduate student at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education’s M.S. in Learning Design and Technology, Thennakoon created Tilli as a game-based learning tool to help prevent physical, emotional, and sexual violence against children.

Noting that over 25% of children worldwide face physical violence and over 36% experience emotional violence, Thennakoon set out to build a tool which would help parents and educators create meaningful conversations about trust, boundaries, bodies, and consent.

After conducting field research in Sri Lanka and the United States, Thennakoon co-founded Tilli with Vidya Sri, an investor and advocate for human rights and child safety. The two worked with more than 270 children and 150 teachers across eight countries to develop a classroom-based tool.

Originally created as a teaching kit available in Sri Lanka, with versions available in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, Tilli is now being developed as an app across multiple platforms.

Prior to being announced as a finalist at SXSW EDU, Tilli was one of the three global finalists at the Future Play Design Challenge, an event organized by venture capitalist firms CoC Playful Minds and LEGO Ventures. The company also received funding from the UNICEF Venture Fund to create learning modules to teach online safety skills.

SXSW EDU, is the education component of the South by Southwest family of conferences and festivals. Held annually in Austin, the conference’s goal is to foster innovation and learning within the education industry.

By being selected as a finalist in the conference’s Launch Startup Competition, which showcases young companies making an impact on the future of teaching and learning, Tilli will be competing against finalists from around the globe.

For the first time in its 12-year history, the majority of the Launch Startup Competition’s finalists will be internationally based, from countries including Finland, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Scotland.

The competition and SXSW EDU emphasize Texas’ growing role as a hub of technology and educational innovation. Tilli’s inclusion also highlights the growing connection between the United States and South Asian tech developers.

The goal of improving social-emotional education is essential in both Sri Lanka and the United States. While possessing one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, the Sri Lankan education system is often criticized for its exam-based approach and limited focus on emotional development.

In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant negative effect on students’ social-emotional health with the effects on the youngest children still not fully understood, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The development of apps like Tilli could potentially minimize the effects of the pandemic on children’s emotional health while also incorporating much-needed social-emotional skills in early childhood education.

Josh Downes is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student in the M.S. in Foreign Service and M.A. in Global, International, and Comparative History programs at Georgetown University.