Interview with Deanna Deyhim (’18) – Founder of Spect

 

E@D recently sat down with Spect founder Deanna Deyhim to better understand SpectTM technology and the motivation behind her vision.

What is SpectTM?

It is, essentially, a program using 3D-VR technology to help students deal with stress. The program uses the technology to visualize users’ internal states as they practice mindfulness. Think about being able to see your heart rate while listening to mindfulness guided audio. Seeing how the practice changes your heart rate, seeing how your heart rate fluctuates as the effects of mindfulness takes hold. This technology would be ideal for a beginner in mindfulness because beginners typically do not know how to go about visualizing these internal states – picture an 8th grader trying to do this. However, I am not saying that an expert practitioner would not benefit from using the technology. On the contrary, I think biofeedback visualization, which is an excbiting thing in general, adds a whole new dimension to the practice.

What is the motivation behind SpectTM and what do you want to accomplish?

Well, my first year in university at Cornell was going to be my first time away from home. I also was dealing with my own personal challenges at the time. Trying to cope with these issues by myself turned out to be extremely difficult because my well-being was competing with working hard to maintain my grades.

One day, a friend introduced me to a small mindfulness group. I was skeptical at first, but it turned out to be very helpful. It had a huge impact. I learnt how to cope with stresses in my life. I was able to focus on my goals in a whole different way to increase my well being.

Given the huge impact of mindfulness in my life and the fact that I know of so many people – students or adults – who are facing challenges that they do not know how to cope with, I decided to tie mindfulness back to my passion in research.  So, I went about figuring out how to quantify the impact of mindfulness. I found a professor at Cornell who specializes in mindfulness. The professor was willing to support me in leading my own research project. However, the cost of VR equipment that would help with the quantification of mindfulness was very high.

To seek out the funding, I decided to look into entering pitch competitions which meant that I had to start treating my research as a business. I worked on a creating a well-thought out business plan, with a couple of other students that I met in entrepreneurship courses, doing market research, and creating the pitch deck. This made me realise that this is what I really want to do and there is a value in the idea beyond just academic research.

Based on my what I found going out into the market, I know that there is a lot of interest in the field of mindfulness. All that is left is a question of how best to implement it and how to expose more people to it so that everyone can take advantage of the benefits of mindfulness.

I believe VR is definitely a useful and practical way to implement mindfulness.

Do you think there is a business in your idea – mindfulness through virtual reality?

Yes, very many people, who understand the education space, where SpectTM would be operating, and who know how mindfulness is growing in the industry, are very encouraging of the idea. This question is also something I have been thinking about a lot. I have been doing plenty of market research on this; seeing if there is validation with my stakeholders for the hypothesis of what I think the need is. One way of doing this validation has been through customer interviews.

However, I am also working on doing some real-world research in schools, to see the impact of mindfulness through VR on students. Over the Fall 2017, soon after school started up after summer break, I got in touch with DeWitt Middle School, a public school in Ithaca.  The intent is to do a small scale research study as a pilot for a larger research study to be conducted in the Spring 2018. However, there is a lot of red tape around public schools. This was a challenge, but it informed in-part the decision to pivot the business plan to focus on private and charter schools.

I got permission from the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). However, I am still waiting for the go ahead from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Cornell. The permit from the IRB would essentially allow us to work with human participants in our research through the Cornell lab.

Right now, due to the pending approval from IRB and with so little time left in the semester, I plan to use an already existing app to test out the idea of mindfulness at schools. Over the spring, I plan to conduct a larger scale study including New Roots Charter School and Boynton Middle School.

What are some of your concerns right now as you test out your idea and build out your business?

I think I am torn with how to conduct the in-school research. One of the people on my team is a student here at Cornell. He is helping me develop the software for the 3D environment that would be in the VR headset. Development would be in the spring. This means that I may not have an MVP to test in the spring, at the schools, as I had hoped. Instead, I may be forced to do research using a comparable substitute. This is something I am struggling with. If I had a minimum viable product (MVP) by the spring, I could test it out at the schools and tie-back the results to my product. However, I am dealing with tight timelines, and I recognize that sometimes things do not happen sequentially. Rather, I must use to my advantage the resources and opportunities presented to me.

What would you need help with now?

I am looking to grow my team: marketing, technology, business, and perhaps mindfulness practitioners who would help better refine the internal states that would be coded into the software. I would, therefore, love to talk to people who are interested in this space whether it be in the technology aspect or more the practice. I invite anyone interested in joining the team and anyone who wants to be a part of the development of this technology and business. I think this program can positively impact so many kids and adults’ lives. If you are interested, please send me your resume: dvd23@cornell.edu.

Keep a look out for SpectTM and founder Deanna Deyhim.