Columbia salon owner Chrystal Graves-Yazici never used to struggle with anxiety.
The 37-year-old woman, who also runs a nonprofit leadership development organization for girls of color, attributes that lack of worry to the fact that “her brain never shuts off” and she was always busy.
But once the COVID-19 pandemic started, Graves-Yazici, a mother of three, would wake up in the middle of the night feeling extremely uneasy and needing to walk outside to get fresh air.
Years earlier, Graves-Yazici had taken a class for aspiring tech entrepreneurs at the University of Missouri with Sarah Hill, a former news anchor who was developing an idea to use virtual reality technology to improve its users’ mental health.
That idea became a company, StoryUp, that now has eight employees and in June was shooting a commercial. Would Graves-Yazici be willing to participate?
The hair stylist appeared in the commercial — and as thanks, received a VR headset containing the company’s virtual reality and augmented reality apps on a platform known as Healium. That gift helped to relieve Graves-Yazici’s anxiety — and she’s now using it to help customers at her salon as well.
They’re not alone in turning to Healium for relief in 2020 amidst the turmoil of the pandemic. While growth for many companies has slowed in recent months, StoryUp has started a new chapter since Startup Missouri first featured it in 2019.
The Columbia-based company has promoted Healium as a “digiceutical,” a digital therapeutic product, and hired two new employees. In June, the company won the Procter & Gamble Ventures Innovation Challenge, which meant it received more than $200,000 in cash and benefits.
“In the middle of a pandemic, don’t we all need a little bit of positivity and virtual peace?” asked Hill. “If we can’t get peace in reality from being confined in our homes, then this is a little window to the world, a completely drugless solution.”
Like Graves-Yazici, Hill also turned to virtual reality because of stress in the real world. In 2012, she had spent two decades in television and become worn down by the news cycle of stories that often were violent, so she left the industry and started working with veterans. She helped to create virtual tours of military memorials for aging veterans who could not travel to see the sites.
That experience showed her how virtual experiences could affect users’ physiology, and in 2015, she launched the company.
The Healium platform uses a headset and an EEG headband or Apple Watch to monitor users’ brain waves and heart rate while a narrator asks them to recall a happy memory; if they begin to relax, they see images of cherry blossoms start to fly, or they levitate up a waterfall in the virtual reality scenario.
Students in Columbia and veterans around Missouri, among others, have used the technology, and the company has raised $1.3 million.
StoryUp’s growth comes amidst a significant increase in anxiety and depression as more than 180,000 people are confirmed to have died in the United States due to the coronavirus. Around this time in 2019, about 8.2 percent of adults in the United States reported experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder; now more than a third of adults do, according to a survey from the National Center for Health Statistics.
CNBC reports that venture capitalists provided more than $3.1 billion in the first quarter of 2020 to digital health companies — more than in any first quarter since 2016.
Hill said she hopes to see drug stores and retailers add a “digiceuticals aisle” with products such as Healium available for purchase alongside physical hygiene items.
Right now, “you can’t go to Hawaii; you can’t go to New Zealand,” Hill said. “This is the stress Olympics and not everyone is trained for it, so we are putting in people’s hands virtual ways that they can quickly downshift their nervous system.”
Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cintrifuse Syndicate Fund, which funds startup funds, acted as a judge at the Procter & Gamble competition. He said he saw Healium as addressing “an unmet need around mental health, and the convergence with virtual reality struck me as extremely novel in the industry.”
Blackshaw previously served as chief digital officer for Nestlé and spent significant time looking at augmented and virtual reality. He said he believes the industry is “poised for hockey stick growth” — a term used in the startup world to describe sudden, rapid growth after several years in business.
“Even if you just think about what all of us experienced in the last few months in terms of our interaction in a virtual context,” he said. “It’s unprecedented, so that could very well be an accelerator for this business model.”
Still, Blackshaw said, for businesses like Healium that operate in the medical or quasi-medical area, there are additional compliance issues.
“But it sounds like they are working through all of that and surrounding themselves with experts in the field,” he added.
Hill said her product is not meant to be a replacement for psychotropic medication or professional counseling, but rather it can be helpful for people who do not regularly meditate and have not trained their mind-body connection.
Graves-Yazici, the salon owner, said she particularly likes a Healium mode in which she is surrounded by pink and yellow lights and guided through a meditation. She also enjoys one in which she is at a stream and surrounded by snowfall.
She also has started to make the headset available for clients to use while they wait for a coloring or deep conditioner to process. During a month of free trials, the “response has been amazing.” Now she plans to charge $15 for the four-minute experience.
“There is really no way to turn off even when you’re in the salon,” she said. “So it’s been a very amazing thing with everything going on, helping people take down their stress level.”
Using Healium at least once a day not only provided her with relief from the stagnation of the pandemic — her nighttime anxiety has gone away — but also helped her to deal with a difficult coworker, Graves-Yazici said. She likened it to guided meditation in which you focus on a person that bothers you and then try to think positive thoughts.
“I even told [that person] that ‘You irritate the hell out of me,’” she said. “But now when I see [that person], those feelings are replaced with good feelings.”