In this Q&A session, you’ll hear from Céline Tien, co-founder and CEO of Flowly, a digital health company tackling America’s opioid crisis with virtual reality therapies. Celine shares how growing up around chronic pain and her experience with virtual reality while working at DreamWorks led to a pain management product clinically proven to reduce opioid use and addiction.
Can you tell us about what you are working on at Flowly?
Céline Tien: Flowly is a science-based, data-driven, and clinically-tested method for reducing chronic pain.
Flowly works by using a mobile app and a VR headset to measure biometric data such as heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV). Then the app converts these measurements into visualizations in virtual experiences, helping users take control of their nervous system.
This “bottom up” approach (teaching the user to control their body/physiology) is designed specifically for people with chronic pain and nervous system dysregulation (compared to the more generalized “top down” approach of other applications meditation and mindfulness). This means that we teach users how to control their body (as in physiology) before applying it to how they feel physically and emotionally.
Flowly’s founding team is made up of alumni from Yale, DreamWorks and Hyperloop One, along with a world-class clinical team from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and USC. Our early years focused on case studies and randomized controlled clinical trials. Our NIH-supported clinical trials have demonstrated an average reduction of 40% in opioid use.
How did you come up with the idea? What key idea led you to pursue this opportunity?
CT: I grew up around pancreatic cancer, which is a very painful experience. And seeing how pain can fundamentally change someone’s life is something that has always concerned me deeply.
While working in development at DreamWorks, I got really involved and excited about VR technology. It was then that I discovered that virtual reality had been researched since the 1980s for pain management. So combining these two passions – pain management and virtual reality – seemed like a no-brainer.
At the same time, opioid abuse had become the number one health crisis in the United States. And with stricter regulations around opioid prescriptions, many chronic pain patients have been left in the dark without other tools or options for consistent pain management at home.
So we immediately started developing Flowly as a mobile home tool that any chronic pain patient could use on a daily basis.
How did you turn your idea into a business?
CT: To give momentum to our mission, it was essential for us to work with reputable and respected leaders in our field and in the scientific community. To that end, we’ve partnered with top pain doctors and some of the largest hospitals in the United States.
Additionally, an NIH grant was instrumental in creating a science-backed product. Once we dedicated time to science, other physicians and leaders in the field began sharing Flowly with their medical communities and patients. Seeing this, investors joined us as they began to recognize the potential of our service.
And, while it hasn’t been easy, the key for us every step of the way has been to dive deep and do it.
How big can it get? What is the addressable market and how do you capture it?
CT: Currently, one in three Americans (~100 million) lives with chronic pain – more than cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined. It’s a huge market, and those who suffer from it are our main customers.
To create greater access to Flowly and reach more chronic pain patients, we continue to develop more partnerships in the medical and corporate communities.
Do you have anything else to share with readers?
CT: I started Flowly as a young woman of color with no formal medical training. By showing up at medical conferences, people were literally shutting me out of conversations. That, and investors often assumed I was the email copy assistant.
My hope, above all, is that our work at Flowly gives people more control over how they feel. But also, I hope it paves the way for more marginalized founders to take control of the industries and fields in which they work.
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