Jennifer Zhang believes in the power of three I’s—immersion, interaction, and imagination—when it comes to using virtual reality (VR) technology. But not for entertainment purposes.
She was talking about how VR technology can be used to provide support for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and stroke patients.
“Patients have a higher level of enjoyment and engagement by being in a pleasing and customizable environment. They can freely move around in the VR environment, which they cannot do easily in real life,” Zhang said. “This greatly increases their motivation to do therapy.”
A graduate in mathematics and computer science from the University of Oxford, Zhang is now the founder and CEO of DancingMind, a Singapore-based startup that works to make therapy more affordable and accessible through digital solutions.
DancingMind was also one of the startups chosen to join Sequoia India’s Surge startup accelerator recently in April, getting USD 1.5 million in funding from the VC firm.
Zhang has always been interested in healthtech as her late grandmother suffered from dementia. She also enrolled in a series of related internships, including stints at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research and at multinational healthcare company Roche.
Zhang first had the idea for DancingMind in 2015. But she said it took several years from conceptualization to formulation of the design philosophy—and working with advisors and people in the healthcare industry to understand the biggest pain point—which was the shortage of therapists for dementia and stroke patients.
Shortage of therapists
There is an acute shortage of therapists in Singapore, Zhang said, with an estimated 200,000 patients needing daily therapy. Daily therapy is particularly essential for dementia and stroke patients.
The shortage of human resources in this sector means the way is open for a standardized and scalable solution. Zhang also wanted to address the language barriers between foreign workers in healthcare facilities in Singapore and elder patients.
VR technology was chosen by DancingMind to deliver therapy courses for patients because according to Zhang, “You can’t do movement capturing or accurate data tracking on the phone.”
With the VR headset, patients can access DancingMind’s library of different apps for every specific function of therapy, from cognitive, to physio, to working on their memories.
The patients can be immersed in a fantasy forest and follow instructions for neck therapy sessions or work on moving their elbows by fishing at the beach. The VR headset can perform more accurate tracking, recording, and interactions, allowing the patients’ therapists or healthcare professionals to evaluate the progress.
“A major challenge for all therapists is to keep motivating their patients to do repeated movements or cognitive exercises when the rehabilitation journey could take decades,” she said. “We keep the repeated movements and cognitive exercises precise and think of creative methods that patients will identify with.”
For example, Zhang explained that patients in Western countries might love to play darts where repeated motion is crucial to wrist rehabilitation.
According to Zhang, DancingMind’s VR therapy modules are currently deployed on hardware like the Oculus Go, Pico Goblin, Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive. The goal, she said, is to keep the modules affordable. Using consumer-level hardware allows for a scalable solution with gear that can be purchased and used worldwide
Currently, DancingMind has partnered with 15 healthcare facilities in Singapore and the UK. These facilities are given free VR headsets and they pay a subscription fee to use DancingMind’s library. Zhang did not disclose the average pricing.
Before working with these facilities, Zhang said DancingMind must understand the therapy process patients were undergoing there and figure out how DancingMind’s apps could be integrated into the facility’s data system. DancingMind would also have to ensure a level of confidentiality for all patients. There will also be on-the-ground training sessions for the healthcare facility’s staff.
Due to safety reasons, DancingMind applications will not be used for patients who suffer from epilepsy or paranoia, Zhang said.
Zhang’s team is working on expanding the content available in DancingMind’s library. And she’s plotting overseas expansion, with both China and India in mind.
“Generally, we are looking to first launch in countries with developed medical infrastructure and a high awareness of the ailments that the aged face,” Zhang said. “The market education cost in these countries is lower, and patients and users have a deeper understanding of the purpose of our modules.”
Zhang believes that while other providers see VR as a channel to disseminate content, her startup also focuses on obtaining movement and in-app data from the patients to create an adaptive process.
She also cares about supporting nursing homes that often have to work with a much lower budget for therapy.
After the initial process of getting her startup up and running, Zhang understands the road ahead is much more difficult. Where she was once the designer, project manager, coder, and business manager for her startup—she now has funding from one of most respected VC firms in the world—and a team of 15 members to help the company make an impact.
For Zhang, the most rewarding part of her job is seeing how some patients have regained mobility from using DancingMind’s applications. She’s also well aware that her initial success can also inspire other young women to join the tech industry.
“I am excited at the prospect that with more women in tech, we not only empower these women in an incredibly exciting and rewarding industry but potentially disrupt previously overlooked industries and markets with new technologies and transform them for the better,” she said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in Southeast Asia.