During her teenage years, Solome Tibebu met with several psychologists to contend with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder—and her doctors often would prescribe mental health exercises for her to complete between sessions. “During a five-year period, I saw four therapists, and they would give me my mental health homework on a Post-it note,” she recalls. There was little structure for the assignment and typically scant follow-up during the next session.
Tibebu believed she could get today’s digital native teens more engaged in their mental health homework, and she developed Cognific to help patients and therapists improve the counseling process. The recent University of St. Thomas graduate, who earned a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship, created a video game version of therapy exercises. Teenagers can do them anytime and anywhere, on their computers and/or mobile devices, in a format that’s enticing and interactive.
Simultaneously, Cognific’s games give therapists more insight into their patients’ thinking and offer clinicians a simple system for tracking analytics and managing cases. “I’m hoping that Cognific will help open communication between the patient and clinician,” Tibebu says. “Cognific can be a big part of helping the patient on the journey to mental wellness and help patients get better faster.”
Tibebu is well on her way to making inroads with Minneapolis-based Cognific and its patent-pending software. Last year, she won first place in the Fowler Business Concept Challenge at St. Thomas. Tibebu also secured $85,000 in seed funding last spring to pay for Cognific’s website design and development, as well as its first three game modules. The company started beta testing its product this fall at PrairieCare, a Twin Cities inpatient and outpatient psychiatric hospital.
The company’s three modules include a psychological education trivia game, a mindfulness/relaxation session, and a prolonged exposure therapy, which helps people overcome anxiety. One mindfulness activity has patients mark areas on a body silhouette where they are feeling tension; they are then taken through a guided audio meditation. Patients can earn badges, points, and awards for completing their exercises.
Tibebu plans to market Cognific to providers using a software-as-a-service model; clinicians will be able to pay for individual subscriptions, or clinics can purchase site licenses. Using the service will make documentation easier for clinicians because they’ll be able to electronically record which exercises they assigned to patients, how the exercises went, and any insights they gained from a patient’s experience outside the office, says Tibebu. Eventually, she hopes to be able to more fully integrate the results from assignments with clinicians’ existing patient-record systems.
“If someone is having a panic attack on Monday but they aren’t going to therapy until Friday, they might have trouble articulating what was happening then,” she says. But by having patients complete the assignments between sessions, therapists can gain a clearer understanding about what was going on in each patient’s mind at various different times. Additionally, “there are a number of studies showing that using a computer lets patients open up earlier, and it can make teens more comfortable with therapy,” says Tibebu.
Targeting youth initially, Cognific will eventually expand its variety of exercises and offer them to other types and ages of patients. That could include veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and teenagers with other disorders. There are plenty of people who need help: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five suffer from mental health problems.
Tibebu, who grew up in Eden Prairie, is already well versed in start-ups, having created a nonprofit called Anxiety in Teens when she was 16. It serves as an online magazine, resource, and community for teenagers to share their experiences with mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and more.
“After going through the anxiety experience I went through, I’ve been able to develop the skills to stay calm under pressure and become more mindful and self-aware,” she says. “And even when things are challenging or extremely stressful, I still know this is an awesome privilege to do something for a community that means a lot to me.”