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Alabama Startup VirtuOwl Helps Students Focus on Mental Health Needs

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Birmingham-based startup VirtuOwl helps bring students together with counselors, faculty and other administrators to address mental health issues. (Adobe Stock)

By Mia Watkins | This is Alabama

Like many startups, the founders of VirtuOwl began with a glaring need in the community.

“Our schools are really struggling right now,” VirtuOwl General Manager Bo Morgan said. “Our students are really struggling. There’s been a 40% increase in mental health issues in schools since 2020. School counselors are overburdened right now. The recommended ratio between students and counselors is 250 students per counselor. The average in Alabama is 409 students per counselor.”

The result is a safe and secure platform designed to bring students together with counselors, faculty and other administrators to address mental health issues.

Debra Hays and Brandon Barker founded VirtuOwl in 2022. Hays’ background is in tech software engineering, while Barker comes from the world of software development and innovation. Their heart for students and tech experience met up with Morgan’s educational experience as a former teacher at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham.

“When we went through COVID-19, they saw a direct need for students to have a safe place — a secure place where they could get the help that they need — unlike other video conferencing platforms where there have been so many data breaches,” Morgan said.

VirtuOwl connects students with certified mental health counselors using existing telemedicine technology that is FERPA and HIPAA-certified.

“It just aligns very well with being able to facilitate those kinds of sessions,” Morgan said. “We talk to more and more schools and districts, and they ask us, ‘Can it be useful for that?’ and our answer is yes.”

Counselors can store notes securely and loop in other professionals as needed. They can also offer scholarship assistance, NCAA athletic compliance, FAFSA assistance and college and career readiness.

VirtuOwl’s secondary use is to help other education professionals use time efficiently.

“The majority of our school counselors’ time is bogged down with administrative tasks like handling communications, setting up appointments, things like that,” Morgan said. “We’re trying to help our school counselors and other personnel within the school first by helping them be more efficient.”

For now, the startup exclusively serves Alabama school districts, working with high school-age students.

“We want to start here first,” Morgan said. “But, really, it’s also a smart way to grow a software company. We want to prove ourselves and be able to grow from there. We see every day the needs of our students, and the heart of our company is to help our students and grow from there.”

Using certified educators, VirtuOwl can also help with other facets of academic life.

“We are at that stage right now where we have a really good product,” Morgan said. “The needs in schools and districts change and are different everywhere you go. Our approach is mental health; however, we are able to fulfill the needs of any type of academic intervention such as tutoring or ACT prep as well.”

Counselors and educators can set their own hours and rates.

VirtuOwl is in the heart of downtown Birmingham. Morgan describes the city’s startup scene as a great incubator for companies, with others willing to invest time in seeing companies flourish.

“It’s a great network of people,” Morgan said about the city. “People here are willing to help without necessarily getting anything in return. I think there’s a lot of people here that are truly invested in seeing the overall success of companies here in Birmingham and seeing Birmingham continue to grow.”

“There’s people you can call that will give you an answer right away. You feel like they’re a part of your team, even though they aren’t officially. There are a lot of really, really successful people that are right down the street. You don’t have to go outside the city limits to get the expertise you need.”

In the future, Morgan hopes that VirtuOwl will continue to improve its product, reach more school districts and students and expand its offerings.

“Our overall approach is approaching the mental health angle first if a student is having a hard time learning so that the student can learn all the other core subjects,” he said.

This story was previously published by This is Alabama.