INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana University startup that won a $194,575 federal grant to develop a video game that treats emotional deficits linked to brain injuries has taken the next step toward that goal by partnering with a Broad Ripple design and development firm.
In collaboration with EmotEd LLC — along with faculty at the IU School of Medicine and the School of Informatics and Computing — DeveloperTown has assembled a “wireframe” model of how EmotEd’s Emotion Builder platform will function, said Michael Cloran, the firm’s managing partner.
Planned applications go beyond the initial focus on traumatic brain injuries and include therapies for stroke patients, people with autism, schizophrenia sufferers and military veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, Cloran said.
Founded by IUSM assistant research professor Dawn Neumann, EmotEd seeks to treat disorders that stem from alexithymia, or difficulties in recognizing emotion. Its work with DeveloperTown began shortly after EmotEd received a Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer award from the National Institutes of Health in June.
The grant has since been met with $50,000 in matching funds from Elevate Ventures, a nonprofit organization that provides state dollars to promising, early-stage entrepreneurs who have received funding through small business grants.
“One of Dawn’s key insights is that if one can learn to recognize one’s own emotions first, then they can become better at recognizing emotions in other people,” Cloran said. “Our challenge was to create an emotional education platform that involves some verbal scenarios, some visual scenarios and some situational scenarios within a video game setting.” Along with reality-based scenarios, the Emotion Builder format includes quizzes, slide presentations and a patient-survey function, Cloran said. The platform is being designed to reach up to three core audiences.
“First there are researchers, who could use the Emotion Builder to determine which therapies are working and which are not. Then there are therapists, who would use it in various treatment regimes,” he said. “There is also the potential, in certain scenarios, where patients themselves could use the Emotion Builder in their treatment.”
With the beta version of Emotion Builder’s first module scheduled for completion by January, EmotEd is poised to enter the project’s next phase: full development of all four Emotion Builder modules and a large-scale, randomized control trial. To accomplish that, EmotEd will seek Phase II STTR funding, as well as private investment support, said Joe Trebley, head of startup promotion and support for the Indiana University Research and Technology Corp.
Neumann described the model created by DeveloperTown as “very sophisticated” — one that allows potential investors to easily see EmotEd’s vision for treating emotion deficits and the value of its approach.
“It strategically positions us to conduct market research, build a comprehensive commercialization plan and, importantly, seek and ascertain investments,” said Neumann, who also directs the IU Interactive and Functional Assessment of Communication and Emotion Center at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.
Neumann added that DeveloperTown’s expertise in software development and startup companies has “catapulted” expectations of what EmotEd can become and the level of product it hopes to deliver.
“As a rehabilitation research scientist, my knowledge about software development is pretty limited. This really thwarted my ability to see all the possibilities,” she said. “Working with DeveloperTown has opened my eyes and extended my original vision of the Emotion Builder exponentially. It has been a truly amazing experience.”
The number of patients who struggle with emotional processing deficits represents a large and rapidly growing population. Among patients who sustain traumatic brain injuries, it is estimated that between 112,807 and 202,475 people each year develop at least one of the deficits that Emotion Builder seeks to target.
“That estimate does not even include patients with TBI who have been seen by the Department of Defense or the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) for their brain injury,” Neumann said. “Research has shown that people with alexithymia who have been exposed to traumatic events are more likely to develop PTSD and are less likely to respond to psychotherapeutic treatments.”
Examples of emotion deficits include decreased emotional self-awareness, impaired recognition of others’ emotions and empathy loss. EmotEd’s Emotion Builder seeks to fill a void in which no standardized, evidence-based treatments exist that comprehensively target all aspects of emotional processing.
“Most train recognition of others’ emotions but fail to address emotional self-awareness and empathy,” Neumann said. “This is a major limitation since most problems with recognizing others’ emotions are related to difficulty recognizing emotions within oneself. Moreover, emotion training programs do not provide a mechanism for functional practice in natural settings that also offer structure and control.”
Additionally, most of the few emotional training products that exist are designed for children and are inappropriate for treating adults, whereas Emotion Builder is designed for various age groups, Neumann said.
EmotEd was formed in 2012 through IURTC’s Spin Up program. IURTC is a not-for-profit agency that helps IU faculty and researchers realize the commercial potential of their discoveries. Its Spin Up program aids companies with promising technologies in their early stages of development. Since 1997, IURTC’s university clients have accounted for more than 2,800 inventions, nearly 1,900 patent applications and 77 startup companies.