You studied Corporate Communications at the University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication in your home country, Austria. As a teenager, when did you realise that’s what you wanted to study?
Well, that’s a tricky one. Realistically, at that time, I looked more into my personal interests and skills than into the study programmes available. I always liked business, but I also wanted to put my inventiveness into play, so I ended up studying architecture for a year. It was a great experience, but I realised that it wasn´t something I would want to do full time. So, I ended up changing to Corporate Communications, which was the perfect mix of business knowhow and strategy combined with creative writing and corporate design. Don’t feel you have to stay with something you are not passionate about. It is nearly impossible to imagine where you will be in five years or even three years’ time. Now, I am actually back working on something that my art teacher in school always encouraged me to pursue – product design. Back then, I was not so convinced that this was for me, but circumstances brought me back to it and I actually love it now! Our paths are constantly changing and that’s something that we should all learn to appreciate. We are in a constant discovery of where we want to head next. For example, entrepreneurship was not on my list from the very beginning, now I could not think of anything else that I’d rather do.
What is it about entrepreneurship that makes it so appealing to you?
I think it’s the freedom and the personal enrichment that comes from learning and doing a lot of different things. Thinking back, even at school I was interested in most subjects on an equal level. Having my own start-up now, I have to do a bit of everything from taxes and invoicing to product design. It’s such a rewarding experience to feel that you are not only part of something, you are creating it.
During your degree, you engaged in a project in coordination with ‘Woman’, a magazine and platform for women in Austria. We would like to hear more about that project and how you got involved in it.
My program plan at the University of Applied Sciences included several practical projects throughout my three years of study there. One of them was with WOMAN, a lifestyle magazine. The WOMAN team wanted to find new ways to promote interaction between readers and provide new experiences to their audience, while strengthening the community. Despite being a lifestyle magazine, they are also increasingly moving towards women empowerment and career awareness. Our team was responsible for creating a communications concept for the magazine. We started by setting goals, creating strategic outlines, and ended with preparing visual material and mock-ups for the final presentation, which was highly praised by the magazine. It was a great experience, digging deeper into the magazine’s audience, learning about their needs, and also working closely with a client. These projects were vital for us to get an idea of how the things we learned in class could be applied in practice.
After your undergraduate studies, you moved to Cambridge to pursue a Master in Entrepreneurship in Healthcare Innovation. What made you take that step? How big of a change was that for you?
One of my first contacts with entrepreneurship was my internship and later full-time position at an Austrian start-up, which was working on the development of a software for the taxation of cryptocurrencies. I was part of the marketing and communications team, working on social media sales strategy, creating partnerships with tax agencies, and so on. From the dynamics there, I knew that I would not want to go into the corporate world, but I rather enjoyed working in a small team, facing new challenges every day and coming up with lean ways to solve problems. There, I also met my partner and now co-founder, Cornelius Palm. We were both keen to learn more about the background of entrepreneurship and the underlying theory, while at the same time we wanted to bring our own ideas to life. We looked out for opportunities and the Masters in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) was fitting perfectly with our plans. As a part-time program, we would have enough time to work on our business while learning more about entrepreneurship from our diverse cohort. Having heard a lot about the Cambridge experience, Cornelius and I decided to move to Cambridge, despite the Master not requiring us to be presently there. It was definitely a good choice. The Cambridge community could not have welcomed us better. The team at CJBS, our Masters’ cohort, and the Cambridge entrepreneurship community, where we are also part in the Accelerate Cambridge program, are extremely supportive and have helped us a great deal in starting up our venture.
And now you are a founder and COO of a digital health start-up company, Happyr Health, which aims to support children with migraines with personalised and playful cognitive behavioural therapy. As a migraine sufferer myself, I am truly curious and hopeful about this kind of innovation and solution. What is this venture all about? How does it work? How did it start?
We looked into several different ideas back in Austria already. We knew that we wanted to pursue the path of social innovation, doing something good for people or the planet with our venture. Cornelius is an experienced paramedic with great knowledge of the healthcare ecosystem; hence, the healthcare industry sparked our interest. I, too, have always been interested in improving quality of life, with a great love for sports and nutrition. So, why migraine in children? I have suffered from migraines for over 17 years. My journey to neurologists and therapists started very early on, and no one seemed to have an answer for why I was in pain. My parents were desperate, and I started to fear unpredictable situations like school trips or sleepovers, as I was constantly afraid that the pain would return. On that journey, I learned a great deal in how to manage my migraines. Of course, I sometimes take medication, but for me the main issue was to learn how to manage the emotions arising as a consequence or trigger of the migraines – the fear, the stress, the anger towards yourself because you, again, could not do what you had planned for. After extensive research and talking to migraine specialists and psychologists, we learned that migraine management strategies are poorly accessible to children. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) currently shows the best scientific evidence for children with migraine, yet, sessions are costly, waiting lists for child psychologists long, and the delivery methods of CBT are boring for children. That’s how the idea of Happyr Health came to light and where we want to position our company. Happyr Health is an App that brings together therapy-based concepts in playful mobile games for children, aiming to make CBT enjoyable and easily accessible at home, in short but regular sessions of a few minutes every day (to also avoid extensive screen time). We are working with migraine and psychology experts and experts in mobile games and technologies such as augmented reality (AR). The first version of the App will include an AR character, with whom a child can interact with. Via a chat with predefined questions, a child can learn more about CBT and can tell us how they are feeling in a very interactive way. Knowing how an individual child is feeling and what he/she is struggling with will help us suggest personalised games that are based on therapy concepts, such as breathing techniques. In past studies, remotely delivered CBT has shown good results in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in children with migraine, as well as in reducing pain intensity and frequency. It is our goal now to crack the nut of making this also engaging for children for far-reaching long-term results.
Have you tried CBT yourself? How did that idea occur to you? Which age ranges are you aiming for with your App?
As adults we are better equipped to deal with our emotions, and we have a wider range of accessible tools we can resort to. I have tried mindfulness-based stress reduction, which works pretty well. There are fewer options for children though, and none that is appealing to them. We spoke to countless general practitioners, migraine experts with psychology background, experts in paediatric pain, and experts in the mobile health sector to come up with the best solution for children. Our first target audience are pre-teens and children just before they reach puberty. We believe that this is the population segment that will most benefit from the technology at an initial phase. We also want feedback from the young users and adults, as we are still at a phase where we are constantly re-shaping and improving the App.
How easy was it to get support/ funding for it and what’s your stage of development?
We are currently working on the App and hope to have the first version ready this year. For the first months, Cornelius and I bootstrapped our work and have received great support from all sides. Many pain experts, therapists, developers, game experts, and the list goes on, have volunteered to help us on our journey. We are extremely grateful that we can inspire others with our vision to help children in pain. Also, we recently started a crowdfunding campaign via the NatWest BackHerBusiness program that took off quite unexpectedly and we reached our target of £10,000 within two weeks. Hence, every support is highly appreciated and can also support our partner, the National Migraine Centre, a London-based charity. We are astonished by how supportive people are and how everyone offers to help. We had never experienced this before.
What are your ambitions for the future?
With Happyr Health, we want to support as many children as possible. So, we are planning to extend the App to other chronic pain conditions in the future. Shockingly, over 27% of children are suffering from some kind of chronic pain, and this does not only affect their body but also their emotional and social wellbeing. With our playful approach, we aim to make their life a little ‘happyr’. Personally, I will always try to continue my learning journey, through this venture, potential future ventures, and by keeping an open mind for opportunities wherever I go. Happyr Health most definitely fuelled my passion to work in the healthcare sector and there is a lot of potentials to innovate there. I am also passionate about nature and the environment. All in all, my curiosity will lead the way, but from the experiences gained so far, bringing positive change by creating new ventures is the path I want to follow.
Would you like to leave a few words of advice to other entrepreneurial women?
Well, the journey is a long and hard one, that I am sure of. Nevertheless, working on ideas you are truly passionate about makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable. When people can feel your personal passion and dedication to what you are doing, they are supportive and want to help you in pursuing your dreams. Don’t expect to find out what you want to work on immediately. You’ll take many turns on the way to get there anyway. A few years ago, I would not have predicted I would be working in the healthcare sector, but here I am, and I love it. There are many industries, niches and projects out there, you might not even have heard of yet. Keep an open mind, follow what you are passionate about and find something to work on that can also be really fun. I, for example, call the bunch of games on my phone ‘research’.
Interview by Iris Batalha.