Moodbeam aims to transform the way we think about our feelings – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Its creator, Christina Colmer McHugh, tells Sam Hawcroft more about the unique wearable device…
Mental health issues affect one in four people at some point in their lives, and the problems of loneliness, depression, anxiety and stress loomed large in our society well before the coronavirus came along. But now, experts are warning of a worldwide crisis as millions more are pushed to the brink by money worries, enforced isolation and doom-laden rolling news. There has never been a better time to talk about our mental health.
Moodbeam, the brainchild of former journalist Christina Colmer McHugh, is a small piece of wearable tech with a big ambition – to open up this conversation and make the world a happier place. Like many entrepreneurs’ inventions, it was born out of a desire to find a solution to a real-life problem.
It all started four years ago, when Christina’s eldest daughter, then aged seven, came home from school one day and burst into tears. “She told me that she was having an awful time at school,” says Christina. “I didn't spot that at all. I thought we were the family that spoke about everything. I thought I'd see the signs. We did all the usual things – we spoke to the school, which was very supportive, and the local community rallied round and she settled back down again, but I was constantly on high alert, thinking, is she going to be OK, what's going to happen today?”
Christina realised that what she needed was something that would help her keep track of how her daughter was feeling, something that would maintain a connection when she couldn’t be with her. She did a bit of research and found all sorts of self-help groups, and apps for mindfulness and keeping diaries, but Christina knew these weren’t really what she was driving at. “What if she had something on her during the day that she could press – to represent how she felt at the time?” she thought.
What she had in mind was some sort of gadget. And who better to approach than Mr Gadget himself, the man who founded the Gadget Shop, and also co-founded the Red5 chain of stores. As ever in business, connections are everything – and it was while she was filling in an application form to join FEO (For Entrepreneurs Only) Ignition in Hull that a friend suggested she run her idea past her husband, Jonathan Elvidge, who helped run the start-up programme.
“I was thinking he would just say, ‘Oh, that's been done a million times over,’” says Christina, “but he said, ‘No, I've never heard of anything like this – I'd really like to explore it.’”
Jonathan pointed her in the direction of Hull’s tech hub, C4DI, and in August 2016, she and Jonathan founded the Moodbeam company, beginning the long journey from vague idea to hundreds of self-funded prototypes. “I suppose ignorance is bliss,” says Christina. “In my naivety, I didn't quite appreciate what was involved in trying to create a piece of hardware and software all at the same time.”
After about a year of trialling various designs, they settled on a key fob with two buttons – one that you pressed to record a negative emotion, and the other to record a positive feeling. Over the next 18 months they continued testing it, moving from Christina’s original parent-child model to adolescent mental health services and adults with anxiety and depression – indeed, anyone who wanted to better understand what triggered their feelings.
Armed with a wealth of testimonials and anecdotal evidence, Christina and Jonathan approached a health tech fund under the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund (NPIF). “They asked us, what's your business case? So, we looked at each other and said, ‘It's never been about the money. We understand why you want to have a bit of a backbone to this, but the minute that you start jabbing your finger under a figure, the passion's gone. We really just want to change lives and try to make this happen.’”
This approach paid off – and they received a grant of £200,000 that allowed them to put the solution into production.
Through Jonathan’s contacts, they sourced a manufacturer in the Far East – and this is where a crucial design decision was made. At first, they hadn’t considered a wrist-worn band, because they believed people would want it to be discreet – that they weren’t quite ready to shout about positive mental health. But when they saw the manufacturer’s prototype wristband (bearing in mind the original Moodbeam concept had five mood buttons), they realised their two-button design would work as wearable tech. After a lengthy period of development and work on compliance, 5,000 Moodbeam One units finally arrived in Britain last autumn – with about 1,100 already pre-ordered.
They had also engaged with one of C4DI’s other major success stories – Sauce, which we featured in the spring 2020 issue of BW – to develop the Moodbeam app, the mobile platform that would collect and analyse all the data from the device.
“Sauce worked in tandem with the hardware company to make sure the app did everything we wanted it to do,” says Christina. “It would have been easy to bring every piece of technology into it, but we wanted it to be as simple to use as possible. And they’ve created an app that is so simple that seven to 97-year-olds can use it. It has the ability to set prompts, rather like an alarm clock. You set five of those a day and it vibrates on your arm to remind you to press it, or if there's a trigger point. You can also add notes and journal entries within the app. We were already quite close to Sauce and really respected the work they did, but because they were literally just down the corridor, we were able to just nip in and out and set up meetings.”
Christina and Jonathan had already started numerous conversations within education and the health service, but one area stood out – workplace well-being. Even only a few years ago this wasn’t a widely accepted concept. “I think historically HR has been quite nervous of having something in place that could potentially make them accountable,” says Christina. “But some of the really forward-thinking firms that we started to speak to said, you know what, these would be brilliant. They realised they would empower the user – the employee – and at the same time allow managers to support them if they reached out, rather than it being a big brother mentality. If someone was struggling, the data it produced could be shared with a line manager, a buddy, or someone on a peer programme.”
At the beginning of this year they showcased Moodbeam at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, which led them to realise there was a global, not just domestic, appetite for what they were doing. They worked hard to make the device affordable and accessible, and as such it’s available to consumers at £49.95 – but at a discounted rate for employers that buy in bulk.
Moodbeam, which also monitors sleep patterns – another good measure of someone’s psychological state – has been described as a Fitbit for the mind. Part of its ingenuity lies in the fact that the user is an active, not passive, participant in monitoring their own daily emotions. If they don’t push its buttons, it doesn’t work. It empowers people to begin that conversation – and, even more crucially right now, it allows them to share how they are feeling with someone else. As the Covid-19 statement on its website says, “Being able to look at and talk about the highs and lows with someone from afar is everything right now, so we’d encourage you to make Moodbeam a part of your daily lives so that you can equip you and your loved ones with the gift of care, connection and conversation.”
“It was originally designed to be a conversation starter and it's still designed to be a conversation starter,” adds Christina. “And I think where all of those other amazing bands fall down is that they all rely on biometrics. And if you're relying on biometrics, you're not relying on yourself. And the biggest piece of this is the self-reporting, the ability to become self-aware.”
The company has grown to a team of seven, including chief medical officer Dr Bruce Charlesworth, software lead Guy Wallace, and Ian Braid, their ambassador for sports and well-being. All of them have, of course, been adapting to working from home in the past three months after Covid-19 hit – and Christina has found herself busier than ever.
While she could never have imagined a few years ago where her idea would take her, she feels as though she has been waiting for this moment for a long time. “I've managed teams and fire-fought our way out of PR crises for other people. I think this was a natural next step for me, but it would certainly have taken me a lot longer if I didn't surround myself by the right people. From day one, C4DI has been amazing and hugely instrumental in opening doors. I now run one of the FEO Ignition sessions because I truly feel passionate about giving something back.”
Covid-19 would seem to have come just at the right time for Moodbeam, but, as Christina points out, there have been four years of hard graft, “and it’s only perfect timing if you actually execute”.
And they’ve responded to the pandemic by starting a giveaway programme – for every 10 bands sold via the website they will give one free to someone vulnerable in the community.
“We asked the community to come forward and nominate somebody to get a free Moodbeam One, and I think people saw us for what we were, which is that it's not about money-making and ambulance-chasing – it's about helping and supporting right now. We would love to create and support a fund someday that really will help people in every country of the world, all being well.”