heritage tech

Houston Greek-American develops app to preserve culture

A Houston entrepreneur is creating a fun and educational platform for children that helps to preserve their heritage. Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Theoharis Dimarhos grew up in a family determined to follow tradition. As a child, his mother serenaded him with old Greek folk songs he still remembers, and his parents made speaking Greek a rule of the house. Dimarhos lived the immigrant family experience, and now he's developed a modern way to preserve pass down culture to the masses.

"My parents came from Greece in 1981, and in typical fashion, they didn't have much and didn't speak the language at all," says Dimarhos, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Living the first-generation American experience, he watched his parents work tirelessly to provide for the family and maintain their Greek culture in America.

Dimarhos did get his own immigrant story when his parents decided to move back to Greece when he was 7. After assimilating to Greece, he traveled back to the United States for college, where he learned to readjust once more.

"I kind of got that immigrant experience a couple of times," he says.

While Dimarhos grew up surrounded by his own heritage, he began to realize that "our native cultures were destined to fade if there wasn't a more modern way for children and our little siblings to learn more about their roots."

When talking with his friends from other countries outside of Greece, a general consensus grew: without modern learning, family heritage would slip away.

Enter: Ellis, an app that helps children connect to their culture. The app includes Greek songs, fables, mythology, history, and language.

Named after Ellis Island, a gateway into the United States for so many immigrants in history, Ellis nurtures Greek tradition in a way that caters to children through technology.

"I've always seen [Ellis Island] as a monument of courage to chase your dreams. . .people came and built this country, but also never forgot where they came from."

Interactive technology is becoming a large part of early childhood education, especially during COVID-19, as more families are at-home with children learning virtually. Children are the targets of over 80 percent of the top-selling paid apps in the education category of the iTunes store, according to a published analysis by Carly Shuler in 2012.

Dimarhos and his wife are deeply tied to their Greek heritage, and hope to pass that history and appreciation to their own children once they start a family.

"We wanted to make sure that there was a 21st century way for us and for our children to learn that goes beyond books," he says. "Something that's a little more immersive and fun — fun is very important — and educational."

Ellis is currently being beta tested with a group of 200 active users within the Greek community. The app, which targets ages 0-8, rolls out weekly content to parents.

"I'm receiving texts from friends who are parents begging me to put more content out because they need something to keep their children occupied," says Dimarhos. "Not only are regular schools closed, but cultural schools that are offered by the community are also closed and struggling to open back up."

Time spent on the app can be as short as five minutes and stretch into hours of learning time.

"The goal is always for children to pick up little phrases and words each time they listen," explains Dimarhos.

The stories and songs are all audio-based, tying into activities like waking up, eating breakfast, and bathtime.

"There's something magical about tying in an audio story or song with everyday tasks for kids," says Dimarhos.

Dimarhos parents see the app as "the next step of passing down the torch of our culture," he says.

"They tried to do it with the tools that they had for myself and my sister. . .We're trying to do the exact same thing that they did and their parents did, just with the tools that technology offers us," he says.

Dimarhos, who previously worked in economic development in Austin, had his first experience with startups when his former boss gave him a chance to work with his international accelerator for startups.

"I got my opening into the tech world through the international accelerator and seeing amazing immigrant founders create jobs and strive to do great things in America," he shares.

"Quite honestly, a startup that celebrates different cultures couldn't have a better home than in Houston," he says, noting the massive immigrant population and variety of cultures in the city.

In Dimarhos' own life, he's come across immigrants as well as first and second generation Americans who wish to preserve their own cultures.

"They've wished there was a more modern way to have access to those resources," he explains.

In the future, Dimarhos intends to quickly broaden the app to "launch in every immigrant community in the United States and around the world."

Connecting to cultural roots is something Dimarhos feels is "sacred" to immigrant families.

"It's something that you have the obligation from your parents as they give you everything for you to succeed in life. You kind of carry that obligation to carry that torch and pass it on to your children and their children," he explains.

"We grow up with that and the vision and the mission is just to create something that makes that a little bit easier to keep our cultures alive. I honestly think it's part of what makes this country great," he says.

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Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been recognized by Fast Company for their leadership in developing low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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