Fainting as a business model
"I am—I think—one of the few scientists who's done an MBA. On my own initiative, by the way, before I started working at Tilburg University. Until recently, the general tenor in the academic world was that making money or doing business was seen as something that was 'not independent'. However, the MBA has given me a kind of framework in which I can think about what I can achieve as a scientist in a different way. Pragmatic more than anything. Science certainly doesn't necessarily have to be theoretical.”
Practical experience of a scientist
Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld is assistant professor at the Department for Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, on the one hand, and starting entrepreneur on the other hand. The “product” that she is working on—and that eventually has to be physically marketed—has everything to do with a phobia that affects many people: the fear of needles and blood.
A scientist stepping into the business world, which at first sight may seem a little odd, but which stems from the practical experiences Elisabeth gained during her work for the not-for-profit blood bank Sanquin, which supplies blood in the Netherlands.
"Originally, I am a neuroscientist," says Huis in 't Veld, "very interested in how your brain and your body work together and what happens when you experience certain emotions. And then mainly, how we can measure and register them, without asking people. ”
This neuroscientific interest was reinforced when Elisabeth joined Sanquin: "Yes, that was a strange move... I used to work at the Cognitive Neuroscience Department in Maastricht. They all have nice, new MRI scanners there, but... I didn't really like it. Then I saw Sanquin's vacancy and thought: 'How funny, let me take a look'. That was a good match and I got a kind of wildcard. They had psychologists, doctors, health scientists, sociologists, but not a neuroscientist yet... That was me."
Introduction to fainting
One of the first things Huis in 't Veld did in her new job was look around a few days at a blood collection location: "I didn't know anything about blood banks, so I wanted to start by talking to donors; see what happens, find out why people give blood, that sort of thing.
And on day one, I saw a girl fainting. A young girl I was following. From the moment she came in, I was talking to her about her motives and at one point I saw that she was starting to get a little bit pale. I asked, ‘Hey, are you okay?’... ‘Yes, I'm fine...". Less than a minute later she fainted."
Saving up fear
That girl was not the only one. Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld saw it happen on a regular basis and then looked deeper into it: "We saw that the stress was increasing. It starts as soon as a person enters the blood bank and sits down in the waiting room. And it peaks at the moment when they are really sitting in the blood collection chair and the needle is coming: you see the preparations and then... you go.
That fascinated me as a neuroscientist. Above all, that people don't see it coming. Available interventions are strongly focused on preventing fainting after donation. However, many donors turn out to faint before or during the injection. This is crazy, in fact, because there is apparently nothing wrong then. I continued to talk about this at the time, with donors, but also with the staff. They keep a very close eye on the donors from the start and do everything they can to put them at ease, in an attempt to overcome the fainting."
It is that preliminary part, the time when fear builds up, that Huis in 't Veld has focused on: "To begin with, I dived into literature. Soon it became clear to me that fear of needles is in the Top 3 of reasons why people in the Netherlands don't want to donate blood. At least 35% (other sources even keep it at 50%) of the adult population is afraid of needles. That's annoying, but it gets even worse when people start avoiding health care because of it; when treatments can't be carried out because of it."
On the way to the product
Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld slowly began to develop the idea on how to develop a solution for this. From a product, which detects the fear process and, based on algorithms, among other things, interactively, ensures that the person in question overcomes his or her fear and calmly enters the process.
"As a neuroscientist, I already knew that people can't always put into words what's going on," she says. "That's why innovative methods are increasingly being used in my field, using thermal imagery. This allows you to observe very subtle changes in, for example, someone's face in certain situations, which are indicative of how that person feels.
My next thought was that if you can trace those reactions, you might be able to influence them. Developing a product that can do this has become the basis of our startup."
The step to Tilburg
According to Huis in 't Veld, we especially shouldn't see that there was a company “right away” at that time. "We saw opportunities. But that was it at that moment. There was still a lot to be sorted out first.
As befits a good scientist, I then had to look for funding for a very long time. That came in the form of a Veni grant in 2018. This allows me to do my own research for four years. With that grant in my pocket, I started looking around and eventually ended up here, at Tilburg University.
Here we have further developed the idea of the app.
The IQONIC entrepreneurship team helped me to get a Take-Off grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), which is specifically for startups. With this we can now build a prototype."
Gain control in a playful way
The idea of Huis in 't Veld and her team is to develop a smartphone intervention that keeps an eye on you—as a player of a game: "He 'looks' at your face with the selfie camera and very subtle signals are picked up by means of artificial intelligence. At the same time, algorithms control a game that 'teaches' you through feedback, in order to control very early and subconscious signals that you are becoming anxious and may faint."
Steps in practice
Now is the time to continue, says Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld: "We have designed a business model, but of course you have to validate that, so we want to have a first mini-prototype as soon as possible. Then we can sit down with potential customers and ask specific questions: 'What do you think?', 'What is important to you? ', 'What should it look like? ’ The basis for successfully marketing the product in the future."
Entrepreneurship and Tilburg University
Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld is happy with the space she gets from Tilburg University to develop the idea as a startup: "Of course, Tilburg is not a technical university, which works much more with patents and techniques and is much more focused on entrepreneurship. But the appointment of Edward van de Pol as Program Director Entrepreneurship sends out a clear signal. He has appointed Dirk van den Berg as business developer, specifically for scientists. He is currently giving me a lot of support. He helps us intensively, one-on-one, with everything that concerns starting a business: from negotiating to making the prototype. That is something he has a lot of experience with, because he himself, very successfully, has brought his company from startup to scaleup. ”
Through this approach, Tilburg University, according to Huis in 't Veld, is clearly opting for a third objective in addition to education and research: "Impact. That is becoming increasingly important. It's still a search, but at least at the moment I really feel supported by the university."
More than "the needle girl”
Impact is what Elisabeth Huis in 't Veld certainly wants to take care of in the coming years: “I don't want to be known as 'the needle girl' all my life. There are hundreds of other things going on in my head that I want to develop. These are focused on what we're doing now, but partly they're not. I also see very different applications... for very different people. And maybe in ten years' time I'll come across something else that makes me think: 'Yes... really...' We still don't know that much about the brain. I'll keep working on that. As a scientist. And as an entrepreneur."
Entrepreneurship at Tilburg University
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