This week, we look at seven wellness-focused start-ups from Trinity College Dublin that are developing technology to help deal with stress, health problems and accessibility.

In recent years, Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) ICT research commercialisation manager John Whelan has seen a growing number of start-ups spinning out of research into mental health and wellness.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Whelan said that this emerging trend is a result of societal and cultural changes. He said: “People are aware that there’s a lot of stress and mental health challenges that they are facing. It’s in the workplace – companies are interested in this technology, because they need employees that are well and can work well.”

He said that this is likely driven by Gen Z, who are demanding more from both their workplaces and their personal lives than previous generations. Below are a selection of TCD pre-spin-outs, which Whelan believes are reflective of society’s changing attitude towards mental health and wellness.

AI-Vic

AI-Vic, which is short for AI virtual counsellor, is a start-up managed by academic promotors Gerard Lacey and Rachel MacDonald. The company’s vision is to develop conversational AI agents for healthcare that can be integrated into the patient care pathway, working alongside clinicians to address constraints on clinical time and provide deeper patient insight.

The first application of AI-Vic’s technology will be in end-of-life care planning, which is responsible for a large proportion of medical costs and has a significant impact on the patient’s quality of life. The solution is based on research that found that patients respond better to non-human avatars when discussing difficult issues, as with humans, they may feel concerned that a clinician or healthcare provider could be making a judgement about them.

The platform aims to support patients and clinicians in the complex, time-consuming and sensitive conversations about the patient’s future healthcare needs, identifying their values, preferences and priorities with respect to the type of healthcare interventions the patient receives as they approach the end of their life.

Akara

Akara is a robotics firm that spun out of TCD, which was co-founded by Conor McGinn, Eamonn Bourke, Michael Cullinan, Niamh Donnelly and Cian Donovan. The company originally set out to develop a social robot called Stevie, which aimed to ensure that older people in nursing homes and residential care could remain socially connected.

When the Covid-19 pandemic was recognised as a major global crisis, the start-up began looking into ways it could help and began developing a technology to keep hospitals clean of coronavirus. The company’s latest solution is a robot that uses ultraviolet (UV) germicidal irradiation at sufficiently short wavelengths to break down micro-organisms’ DNA to stop them from replicating, which can stop the spread of infection.

Since the start-up was founded, it has partnered with Intel Movidius, the HSE, Luxonis, Robuss and the US Army Distaff Foundation.

Empushy

Empushy’s goal is to fuse empathy with push notifications to create healthier digital experiences. The start-up is led by computer engineering researcher Kieran Fraser, who is based at Adapt, the SFI Research Centre at TCD. The start-up is backed by Enterprise Ireland’s commercialisation fund.

The idea for Empushy came about after Fraser realised the potential negative impacts that push notifications on smartphones may have for individuals and their mental health.

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com in September 2019, the researcher said he believes that notifications create a sense of anxiety that makes many people feel like they can’t be without their phone, in case they miss an important notification.

More often than not, these notifications are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things and they can have a negative impact on productivity. Empushy wants to reduce the number of notifications that smartphone users get each day, filtering out the important emails and text messages from the less relevant stuff.

InterAct

Also based at the Adapt SFI Research Centre at TCD, InterAct is developing assistive technologies for people with autism. The company’s goal is to deliver supports through many formats eventually, but at present the research team behind InterAct has developed text-based teaching tools, analyses, guides and resources.

The supports are intended to be used together and are designed to be accessible and support patients to select strategies most suited to their family situation that meet their most pressing concerns. Among the topics covered are anxiety, communicating emotions, daily schedules and positive reinforcement.

The spin-out has also developed resources to help people with autism deal with new challenges that have arisen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the increased frequency of handwashing, using hand sanitiser, wearing gloves, wearing a mask and how to develop functional communication.

Pilot Wellbeing

Pilot Wellbeing began as a research project examining the impact that workplace stress has on airline pilots. The research was undertaken at TCD’s Centre for Innovative Human Systems in the School of Psychology and is now backed by Enterprise Ireland. Researchers behind the project are Joan Cahill, Captain Paul Cullen and Keith Gaynor.

The team behind Pilot Wellbeing aims to develop an application that can support pilots and help them deal with work-related stress, their personal wellbeing and their fitness to fly. The planned application comes after the university surveyed 1,059 aviation professionals about their lifestyles and stress levels to understand which coping strategies help pilots deal with stress.

The spin-out is interested in advancing new tools to enable wellbeing briefing, risk assessment and reporting, and training pilots in relation to mental health awareness, risk identifying behaviour and coping mechanisms.

Simia

Simia is a financial wellness solution that was developed as a result of TCD research. The team behind the solution recognised that financial stress costs the US economy an estimated $500bn per year in lost of productivity, employee attrition and chronic health issues.

The team also looked at how poor employee financial wellness can account for 11pc to 14pc of an employer’s payroll expenses through lost productivity, absenteeism and attrition of talent. According to Simia, financially stressed employees are 2.2 times more likely to seek alternative employment.

The company believes that retrospective financial analysis, proprietary risk management techniques, forward-looking AI and machine learning can help employees identify and correct off-track behaviours to improve their financial wellness.

The firm is developing an employer administration dashboard providing insights and metrics around how employee engagement and employee wellness correlate, to support return on investment (ROI) analysis for HR departments.

WaytoB

WaytoB is a navigation solution founded by Talita Holzer and Robbie Fryers, which aims to make independent travel easier for people with higher support needs, to provide them with more opportunities to socialise, find work and get to wherever they need to go.

WaytoB’s wearable device can be worn by a person travelling to or from a destination and can be set up to provide directions, which are input by the wearer’s family or carers. Through wearable’s companion app, families can see where their relative is navigating, they can see their location, heart rate, battery life and can get alerts if the person deviates from the intended route, if they stop for too long or if they show an elevated heart rate.

In a recent interview with Siliconrepublic.com, Holzer stressed the importance of tools that can help people with intellectual or learning disabilities to travel independently, as they represent 15pc of the global population.

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