CS-founded startups tackle mental health at Velocity Pitch Competition

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

“I wish my nighttime self could talk to my daytime self,” says computer science student Josiah Plett as he recounts his experience with insomnia, which began in pre-school. 

 “I spend so much time in my head at night that I didn't feel like the same person in the day. There was a major disconnect between those two parts of my mind. It caused a lot of mental health issues for me growing up, including developing a personality disorder.” 

Inspired by this journey, Josiah developed and released a video game in grade 12, where the protagonist can interact with their future and past self. Realizing that his childhood wish was very similar to this, Josiah imagined a way to bring this across-time interaction into the real world. 

Soon, a self-texting app had crystallized in his mind. In 2024, Josiah co-founded Echo Notes, with Engineering students Fraser Morrison and Kishore Rajesh. The trio met at the Winter 2024 Socratica & UW Startup Kickoff, a networking event for students to discuss any passion projects. 

photo of Josiah Platt

Inspired by his experience with mental health, Josiah co-founded Echo Notes, the "world’s first future self-messaging platform".

Echo Notes is one of seven computer science startups competing at the Summer 2024 Velocity Pitch Competition. The others include Doro, DriveAdds, AI-Chatbot Jado, InnSight, Talk & Order and Brewtalk. Recently, the semi-finals took place on June 26 and 27. Out of 25 teams, Doro, InnSight, Talk & Order, and BrewTalk advanced to the finals, which will take place on July 25. If successful, each finalist could win a $5,000 grant. 

Described as the “world’s first future self-messaging platform,” Echo Notes allows users to text their future selves, from five minutes to even 50 years. The message will appear from outside— as if their past self is reaching out to them. 

This motivational app can send glimmers of hope, especially for those struggling with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

“We want to help you understand that the future you is going to be in a different mindset,” explains Josiah. “A common question I like to ask is, “When you have a good day, do you remember what it was like in your most recent bad day? And are you doing something to fix those problems? I think most people answer’s is no. But with Echo Notes you can organize your life in a way where that answer is much more easily a yes.” 

However, Echo Notes can be used for everyday struggles like academics. If a student is heading into a heavy courseload and realize they might be tempted to drop their classes or give up, they could “send a series of encouraging messages explaining why they chose these courses, which can help rejuvenate their passion,” says Josiah. 

photo of Kishore at Semi Finals

Echo Note's co-founder Kishore Rajesh presenting at the Velocity Semi-Finals.

 Besides, users can use Echo Notes to send reminders or to take notes.  They can also send messages into their friends’ futures, which is great for sending them motivational messages, thoughtful reflections on things they’ve done together, or even scheduling birthday texts. 

Echo Notes will launch in Beta this summer and the team is seeking participants to test their product. They would like to partner with a clinical psychology lab to run pilot studies, as many therapists and teachers have expressed interest in using Echo Notes for their clients and students. 

Similarly, Rastin Rassoli, a joint computer science and psychology student, is tackling mental health through the power of AI. 

When Rastin worked at a mental health startup, he co-developed a mobile game to help young people manage their anxiety. While researching, Rastin discovered that there wasn’t much subclinical support. This stage refers to people facing problems that are impairing their mental and emotional well-being— but aren’t serious enough for a diagnosis. As a result, they cannot access critical resources like medication or therapy. 

“These individuals are showing early symptoms like daily anxiety, sleep disturbance, or social withdrawal,” explains Rastin. “We want to break this cycle as soon as possible so it doesn’t manifest into a disorder.”

Rastin conducted further research by analyzing several North American universities’ counselling programs. He found that their waitlist was very long, ranging from three to six months. Many people assume that the lack of counsellors caused this problem. However, when Rastin dug deeper, he discovered that high cancellation and low attendance rates were clogging the list— which is connected to subclinical intervention. 

“Students who have serious symptoms tend to have low cancellation and high attendance rates. Since they’re satisfied with these sessions, they tend to follow up with them,” explains Rastin. However, the opposite occurred for students with low to mild symptoms. “At the subclinical stage, your mood is very volatile. So, when your schedule gets hectic, you either cancel or don’t show up.”

Rastin presenting in front of a panel of judges and crowd at the Velocity Semi Finals

Rastin presenting at the Velocity Semi-Finals. His team has advanced to the finals, taking place on July 25th.

Realizing the need for subclinical intervention, Rastin co-founded Doro with his brother Ramtin Rassoli, a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Engineering program. Recently, they launched Doro for the public, receiving high praise for its effectiveness, accessibility, and affordability. 

Doro is described as “your daily mental health coach.” When users open the app, they are greeted with a chatbot asking them about their experience with mental health and if they have problems. During these sessions, Doro can share cognitive and behavioural techniques commonly used by therapists like exposure, journaling, or mindfulness. The user can also complete tasks and track their mood.  Overall, this app can help those at the subclinical level through coaching, self-reflection, and therapeutic journaling. 

This research is at the cutting edge of computer science and psychology. Namely, Doro is a state machine composed of 12 generative Large Language Models (LLM). Each model is tailored for a specific function like probing or offering solutions. In addition, the team used publicly available therapy sessions to train and fine-tune their models. 

Soon, Waterloo’s Campus Wellness will use Doro as a resource students can use before and after their first counselling session. The team’s other plans include training and deploying Doro’s future models, developing new app features, and expanding partnerships with universities and clinics— which could be made possible with the Velocity’s grant. 

Last month, marked Men’s Mental Health Month. Its mission is to raise awareness and encourage men to seek help. “Right now, most men aren’t receiving the support they need,” says Rastin as he points to how men make up 30 to 40 per cent of the demography for most mental health apps. “This month is a reminder that this issue still exists, and we need to develop a solution for it.”  

Josiah echoes this sentiment “Men's mental health is often swept under the rug at places like universities. I wish that weren't the case. I mainly created Echo Notes to help me with my personality disorder, and I hope this app can do the same for others.”

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