While all faculty have plenty on their professional plates with research, teaching, and service, four University of Michigan psychology professors—Patricia Deldin, Jacquie Mattis, Nestor Lopez-Duran, and Twila Tardif—have added significantly to theirs by pursuing commercial ventures beyond the academy. For each, taking their work into the commercial sphere allows them to further their own scholarly efforts while quickly bringing innovations to other academics and the general public.
Patricia Deldin — Mood Lifters
Patricia Deldin’s enterprise Mood Lifters developed from a desire to increase the accessibility and efficacy of mental health care, but the spark came from Weight Watchers.
Like many, Deldin, who is the associate director of the Depression Center, had great concerns about the state of mental health care in the U.S: the shortage of providers, the relatively small percentage of people who seek mental health care, the limitations of medication and therapy, and increases in suicide, depression, and substance abuse. “Whatever we’re doing is not working well enough,” she asserts.
Enter Weight Watchers. When Deldin began attending meetings a few years ago, she was impressed with their model, which she found psychologically sound, data driven, and effective in helping people lose weight. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had this for mental health,” she wondered. “$50 a month, evidence-based care that’s highly effective.”
Deldin examined what made Weight Watcher work: Peer-led meetings available everywhere, everyday that educate participants on healthy eating and lifestyles, a clear point system to follow, accountability with weekly weigh-ins, and positive reinforcement.
To develop Mood Lifters, as Deldin calls this endeavor, she took a comprehensive approach, addressing biology, emotions, behaviors, and relationships. Instead of weighing in each week, clients check in with a questionnaire assessing factors such as joy, their physical health, and the health of their relationships. She developed a point system similar to that in Weight Watchers and based on existing research, in which clients earn points in six domains: biological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, sleep, and social. She chose activities that have been shown in the literature to work in addressing mental health concerns, such as exercise and regulating emotions. Group discussions focus on such topics as how to build better relationships and how to improve sleep hygiene, and include directions on how participants earn points.
Working with graduate students, Deldin developed 15 modules and trained peer leaders. They advertised on Facebook for the first sessions and the response was overwhelming. Deldin was thrilled to see that participants not only returned after the first session, but came to every meeting, with only a few absences. The meetings felt very different from therapy, more like a class, and participants had fun, joking and supporting each other. And most importantly, saw improvements across the board in their well-being.
Deldin and her team have run the program with several groups and for each they’ve seen a robust improvement in mood. They administered batteries before and after each group, looking at anxiety, depression, personality, and work function, and participants saw improvement on almost every measure. Not everyone sticks with the program and there is a drop out rate of about 30%, as Deldin expected. But those who do complete the program get significantly better. Deldin is currently undertaking a randomized controlled trial, and so far has seen the same results. Participants’ feedback is also extremely positive. “I’m now hopeful for a better future and have some tools to help me along the way,” one participant wrote. “My marriage is better, my job is more rewarding, I’m taking pleasure in more of my day-to-day activities, my drinking has been curbed, and I’m truly happy to be here now.”
While Deldin recognizes that Mood Lifters won’t take the place of treatment for people with severe mental illness, it is ideal for people who have anxiety, depression, and/or some substance abuse. It is also is, inexpensive, evidence based, and highly effective. “At every point I’ve been skeptical,” Deldin says. But in every case the data has supported the model. Developing Mood Lifters as a commercial business modeled on Weight Watchers will allow Deldin to expand quickly, as it’s highly scalable, and to incorporate new research findings as soon as they are available.
Deldin is currently working on expanding Mood Lifters and building its basic infrastructure. She is planning to test an online version, using a platform that allows live virtual meetings. If it is successful online, it will be a significant boon to regions of the country where there is a shortage of mental health providers. She also hopes to develop a model for people with more serious mental health problems like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Jacquie Mattis — Easton’s Nook
Easton’s Nook is a retreat in Newark, NJ, where scholars, artists, and activists come to write, create, and collaborate. Created by Jacquie Mattis and her sister, Nadine Mattis, it grew from their wish to honor their late mother, Zerish Mattis Easton, support a scholarship they created in her name, and nurture scholars and artists in their work.
Mattis’ mother was a social worker in the Bronx, NY with a profound faith in education, who ensured that her children and scores of clients and friends were able to finish theirs. When she passed away, her family created a scholarship in her honor to help Jamaican children from very low-income communities attend school. Easton’s Nook followed, in part, as a mechanism to fund this scholarship.
Easton was also, according to Mattis, a deeply loving person. “When you were in her presence, you felt like you were being held.” In creating Easton’s Nook, she and her sister wanted to replicate that feeling, so that “when people walk through the doors, they would walk into being held and being cared for so that they can do their work.”
Easton’s Nook is a fitting endeavor for Mattis, given the nature of her scholarly work. In her research, she focuses on the role that religion and spirituality play in the lives of African American and Afri-Caribbean people, particularly in the ways that religion and spirituality influence people’s willingness to be loving, compassionate, and forgiving, especially in high stress contexts.
While retreats for artists are common, retreats for scholars are not, and Easton’s Nook fills an important niche. In addition to retreat space for individual and collaborative work, Easton’s Nook offers professional development workshops for graduate students, post-docs, and faculty on preparing for the academic job market, writing, publishing, and planning for tenure. Their intention with these workshops is to broaden the pipeline of scholars into the academy.
Not surprisingly, given the need, Easton’s Nook has been a huge success. Word of mouth is so strong that they no longer advertise. Running the retreat gives Mattis great joy, sharing the success of her guests when they publish a paper or land the grant they were working on. It has also helped her approach her own work differently. She feels that it has changed the way she mentors graduate students and younger scholars—having worked with so many at Easton’s Nook has given her a better sense of the challenges they face in the academy. Additionally, nurturing scholars has taught her to be less driven and more forgiving of herself. “I think that doing this work has made me think about the need to be more self compassionate, slowing down a little bit, and just being really intentional about what it is I really want to do.”
With the success of Easton’s Nook, Mattis and her sister are starting to plan new ventures to allow guests to further deepen their scholarship. Their first will be a program called Nook Abroad, which Mattis describes as study abroad for faculty. The program will take scholars engaged in similar work to places around the world to meet other scholars, community workers, and children and families whose lives and experiences are relevant to their work. “The goal is for us to think about the ways in which we develop these provincial ways of thinking as American scholars, where we assume that the way we understand and live life is universal,” she explains. “It’s also about recognizing the genius that lives outside of these boundaries and being able to honor and have that be what informs how we do our work here.”
Nestor Lopez-Duran — Ripple Science
Ripple Science—a web-based platform that helps clinical research teams manage all processes associated with participant recruitment and post-enrollment tracking—is the brainchild of Nestor Lopez-Duran, growing from his needs as a researcher and his expertise in marketing.
Lopez-Duran, who studies how depression and anxiety develop in children and adolescents, found himself stymied by two significant problems in the managing his clinical trials: his research team’s recruitment of human subjects was much too slow and they had great difficulty in tracking the large number of participants after the trial began. In looking into the issues, he learned that the problem was epidemic in research and that poor recruitment was the primary reason clinical trials fail.
Having worked in marketing for an independent film company between graduate school and his post doctoral training, Lopez-Duran knew that part of the problem was his team’s lack of marketing experience and the dearth of software that could help them design and execute a recruitment campaign. They didn’t have a way to manage information about prospective and enrolled subjects and they weren’t able to track analytics to help identify what was and wasn’t working and where they should focus their efforts. The software that was available to them—primarily Excel—didn’t have features unique to the process of participant recruitment.
Lopez-Duran began developing ideas for software that would help his team with recruitment. Not knowing how to code, he secured a university grant that allowed him to hire an external company to work with him on the software.
Early in the process, Lopez-Duran realized that he would be able to develop the software faster and get it into the hands of researchers sooner, if he took it out of the university under a license. “I think sometimes, especially in academia, people are afraid to think about whether something that they create has commercial potential, whether it’s something they should do, whether it’s ethical or whether we have a role in taking innovations that we might create into the commercial sphere,” he observes. “I wanted everybody to be able to benefit from Ripple and I realized that going through this commercial journey is the fastest way that I could get there.”
Launched in January of 2017, Ripple has fully met Lopez-Duran’s expectations—a integrated solution that goes from helping teams adopt best practices in recruitment as well as automate and simplify the entire process of tracking participants as they go through the entire study.
Ripple has significantly solved Lopez-Duran’s research challenges. He says the team in his lab is far more efficient, with Ripple allowing his project coordinator to automate all tasks associated with the execution of a study. “Ripple is almost like having a second lab coordinator in my lab,” he reports. “It has a major impact on the speed of projects moving forward.”
Ripple has also had the impact outside of his lab that Lopez-Duran had hoped for. It is now used in 36 different universities in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Switzerland and user feedback has been consistently positive. “We are really changing how some of these teams conduct their entire research processes.”
Twila Tardif — Naturalingua
Twila Tardif, who studies children’s early language learning and bilingual language development, focusing on Chinese, Spanish, and English, developed Naturalingua to facilitate her work developing educational software in partnership with media companies.
She had begun working with these companies to develop animations that help make second language learning more fun and more efficient, drawing on her research in first-language acquisition and how parents naturally scaffold language for their young children. Her early clients included Nickelodeon and Age of Learning, Inc./ABCmouse.com, which has an English language learning curriculum. For Nickelodeon she served as a curriculum consultant and for ABCmouse, she worked closely with writers and directors to develop animations.
It wasn’t Tardif’s goal to become an entrepreneur, but she was disappointed in the existing products intended to teach language to adults and children, and knew there could be better. This, coupled with her opportunities to work with established media corporations, laid the groundwork for Naturalingua.
The decision to create her own company came out of conversations Tardif had with staff at the university’s Office of Tech Transfer. She came to them about four years ago, after beginning her work with ABCmouse, to determine whether it would be best to work with outside organizations as a consultant, an employee, or an entrepreneur. “We decided that it made the most sense to turn it into a company,” she recalls. “It could been a consulting company, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to have a clear vision about language learning be a part of that.”
Taking the time to work with these outside companies—she took a leave from the university to do so—has helped Tardif refine her vision of the work she wants to do. “It really made me think about trying to develop research projects that focus on kids’ learning from media, whether it’s apps or animations. There’s a lot of really good research that was done in the early days of educational TV, but there’s not been enough research on how kids are actually learning from devices,” Tardif explains. “As developmental psychologists, we desperately need to understand not just the ill effects of technology, but what might be some of the benefits and how might we advise parents and especially developers to create better tools.”
Tardif continues to explore opportunities with other companies and colleagues, and she recently participated in an NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) regional program to develop a project with an engineering faculty member. Beyond this work, she plans to explore second language learning among high school and college students, hoping to develop apps to make the process more entertaining and less painful.
The faculty undertaking these commercial ventures consistently express their appreciation of the support the University has given them as they’ve pursued these opportunities. Tardif is particularly appreciative of the Office of Tech Transfer for their willingness to work with her and expand their expertise to better meet the needs of the faculty. “They have been incredibly supportive,” she asserts, particularly singling out Drew Bennett, who runs the software team, and Nick Cucinelli, who was her mentor-in-residence. With her positive experience, she encourages other faculty to consider outside ventures as well. “It’s not that everybody has to be an entrepreneur,” Tardif notes, “but there’s a full range of models and we need to actually embrace that full range.”