BEVERLY — Dr. Suzanne Mitchell of Beverly has created a colorful, virtual world where people struggling with diabetes can create an avatar that can dance, fly, or visit “See Yourself City,” engaging them as a means of controlling their disease.
Mitchell’s startup, See Yourself Health, is not strictly a gaming company and it’s not a traditional life sciences company, either.
However, it uses the popular virtual, social gaming platform, developed by Linden Lab LLC, called Second Life to create an online, virtual, 3-D world to help people manage their diabetes. Its called a digital health platform.
See Yourself Health recently received a real-world boost from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center under a competitive grant program called the Massachusetts Next Generation Initiative, which is meant to support women entrepreneurs who have started early stage life sciences companies.
MassNextGen, which is in its second year, is a five-year, more than $2 million commitment to help ensure gender parity among the next generation of life science entrepreneurs. The initiative is a public-private partnership among the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, and Sanofi, King Street Properties and Takeda, the initial corporate sponsor.
See Yourself Health was just one of five women-led life sciences companies statewide to win an $87,500 grant, while also gaining access to a network of executive coaches from the life sciences industry for one year.
Among the five grant-winning companies, four are traditional life sciences startups.
Mitchell’s is the only one playing in the 3-D virtual reality space.
With the state’s life sciences sector so focused on biotech, Mitchell did not think her company had a chance.
“Her company, See Yourself Health, is really a bellwether for the life sciences industry overall,” said Massachusetts Life Sciences Center President and CEO Travis McCready, who oversees the economic development investment agency supporting growth of the Bay State’s life sciences sector.
The state’s life sciences companies do exceptionally well when it comes to research and scientific breakthroughs, coming up with novel drugs and medical devices to find cures for those who are sick.
“The cheapest, most cost-effective thing to do is to have people not get sick,” McCready said. In the wold of prevention, the idea is to change people’s behavior and lifestyle to have an impact on their health. This is what See Yourself Health and digital health companies like it are all about.
“It speaks well to a new approach,” said McCready, who said he spoke with Mitchell at length about her platform and her ideas.
“We are thrilled that we have found her,” he said.
“It kind of validated me as an entrepreneur,” said Mitchell, who appreciates MassNextGen was designed to help women get past traditional barriers to starting a business.
Mitchell is a 54-year-old board-certified physician in palliative and hospice care who works for Boston Medical Center with an appointment at Boston University.
“My interest was always in patient engagement,” Mitchell said. Today’s medicine, she said, has evolved from acute care to caring for those with diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease or COPD.
“The miracle of medicine is that people are living a very long time with those diseases or multiple chronic diseases, but the lifestyle that they have to adopt in order to live with those diseases is difficult,” Mitchell said.
It’s especially tricky with diabetes because food, exercise and stress, which make up much of a person’s daily life, can affect one’s blood sugar.
There are 29 million people in the United States living with diabetes, she said, with an overwhelming majority suffering from Type-2 diabetes, which is related to being overweight, and which can be cured through lifestyle changes through diet and exercise. Those changes are hard to do. See Yourself Health’s virtual world is meant to help patients make those changes, and ultimately lead to a lower cost of health care for them.
Mitchell first learned about “gamification” for digital health about seven years ago while working with a colleague who was using an online gaming platform for physician education.
She found creating an avatar for this platform a deeply immersive experience.
She conducted a pilot study that looked at teaching physicians about how to communicate lifestyle changes to patients. The study created simulated interactions for doctors to learn how to communicate around topics such as smoking cessation or how pediatricians could talk to teens about alcohol use.
What Mitchell found was the attachment to the avatar created a realism you don’t get from a webinar, conference call or video chat.
“There is a sense of suspended reality but serious play that comes together because of the attachment to the avatar,” Mitchell said.
Researchers at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University have also studied how virtual world behaviors translate to real life behaviors and attitudes, Mitchell said.
“They coined a framework called the Proteus effect,” Mitchell said, “that basically says what happens to your avatar ... primes behaviors for real life.”
The idea is that what happens to a patient avatar in See Yourself Health’s platform, such as dancing, swimming or other activities, can get a diabetes patient to be more active, and break the stigma of a disease associated with weight gain.
“So, here you are, let’s play a game, instead of come on, do 150 minutes of exercise a week,” Mitchell said.
The platform is meant to create a virtual community of other patients and provide a fun, engaging space.
People do come back to it, Mitchell said, logging in to six out of eight sessions or more, which is a good attendance rate for patient education programs.
While Mitchell is not a game designer – she works with game design partners – she understands curriculum design, the problem and the target audience.
“I don’t create a story,” she said. “I create an environment where people engage in activities that create relationships, and in those relationships and trust, they create an accountable community where they can explore the barriers that they face, and also engage in activities that they don’t currently do, like swim or bike or yoga.”
Those activities in the game played by avatars spur patients to get active in the real world.
All sessions begin, Mitchell said, by players’ avatars dancing to start the engagement.
While See Yourself Health was set up last year, Mitchell did not have to come up with a virtual world from scratch. The company rents its gateway in Second Life, an open source virtual world. The goal is to set up their own virtual environment, someday.
The company, which is in its beta stage, has been contracted by Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania to deliver the platform to 500 patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes. The company has already delivered it to more than 300 patients in its research program.
“We are trying to self-fund through contracts,” said Mitchell. “We know what we are doing. We’ve done all the research. We know the business model.”
The trick now is how to engage patients, many of them in their 50s, about how a virtual gaming world can help them live better lives in the real world.