VR Pathways offers virtual way to manage real-world stress

· The Pulse

An Edmonton-based startup is working on a way to combine therapy with virtual reality to help more people access the help they need in a way that sticks.

VR Pathways delivers cognitive behavioural therapy in virtual reality sessions via an app called VRBrain. It's pre-revenue but has received positive feedback from those who have tried it, and co-founders Leanne Brownoff and Danielle Bragge are working on the next steps with the help of the TELUS Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator.

"We definitely have a very exciting future moving forward with all things VR and mental wellness," Brownoff told Taproot. "We just want people to be able to put it back into their own hands and not have to feel like they don't have any control."

VR Pathways emerged in part from observations Brownoff was making as a business coach.

"The businesses that I was coaching, they were hiring me to help them meet their ROIs and to help them with strategies. But when I looked at it, the teams themselves were really struggling just to show up," she said. "Everything (at home) was a struggle. And then they walk in at eight o'clock in the morning, and they're already stressed. And the day hasn't even really started."

Bragge was noticing the same thing in her recruitment practice. But the help people needed so they could get into a place where they could be productive was scarce and hard to ask for.

Their search for answers pointed to the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy for counteracting the brain's tendency to get stuck on the negative. VR also kept coming up as a powerful way to encourage the retention of messages. So combining CBT and VR seemed to have promise. VR Pathways was born to see what that promise could lead to, just as the pandemic was about to make everything even more mentally challenging.

Leanne Brownoff on a bridge with two dogs and Danielle Bragge in the snow with two dogs

Leanne Brownoff and Danielle Bragge founded VR Pathways after seeing a need for a better way to help people manage their mental wellness at work. (Supplied)

The app offers 15-minute sessions in four categories: managing emotions, amplifying productivity, developing leadership, and cultivating mindfulness. Each experience places the user in a natural setting and delivers messages that have been reviewed by a clinical psychologist, cued to the visuals in an immersive environment that encourages mindfulness more deeply than an audio-only program, Brownoff said.

Right now, the app is delivered on an Oculus headset, which may feel a little cumbersome to non-gamers, though Brownoff says once you're in it, your awareness of the equipment disappears. That said, the hardware will continue to evolve as big tech turns its attention to the metaverse.

"The technology is improving," Brownoff said. "(Headsets are) always getting lighter. They're getting better. Definitely we're looking forward to that day."

Clinicians are the first target market for VR Pathways.

"The clinicians thus far have been saying, 'We need these tools,'" Brownoff said, noting the high number of people on stress leave or experiencing burnout, with demand outpacing the amount of time therapists have to offer.

That said, there may be a business-to-consumer play as well, based on feedback from beta users, she said.

"Everybody who's gone through it has said, 'How do we buy this? Where is this available?' So we know we've got people who are ready right now."

For Brownoff, this kind of DIY approach to coping with stress is the way of the future.

"Healthcare is changing. We are changing with it," she said. "And we're a perfectly positioned tool at a perfectly positioned time in the world."

Learn more about VR Pathways, Brownoff's entrepreneurial journey, and the benefits of the CSW Accelerator in Episode 34 of Bloom, which comes out on Oct. 20.