Student Startup Works to Pave the Future of Mental Healthcare
Mental healthcare workers often end up with a large amount of patient intake data – including each patient’s symptoms, health information, and screening assessment scores. This data is mainly captured through paper forms. For practicing providers, this means reading through hundreds of paper forms and spending hours manually entering patient intake data into what are usually rudimentary databases.
Penn State student startup Apoio is working to pave the future of mental healthcare with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Apoio’s Clinical Decisions Support (CDS) tool accelerates the psychiatric patient intake process by aggregating and flagging self-reported data from patient intake forms on an interactive dashboard. Instead of a clinician skimming through pages of data to look for key information for diagnosis, Apoio automatically extracts and organizes the data onto an intuitive dashboard, highlighting red flags and other vital details about each patient.
“I felt very in touch with this problem – I went through therapy in the United States, and I remember it took me one hour to fill out an 11-page intake form, just to repeat all the information again to my therapist in our first session,” says Apoio Founder Divya Rustagi. “I found myself thinking, ‘Why is this so inefficient? There must be something on the provider’s end that can be improved.’”
Rustagi is a current Penn State senior studying computational data science in the College of Engineering. Over the course of her Penn State student career, Rustagi has placed in two international innovation challenges, participated in the FastTrack Accelerator program at Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, and was a finalist in the 2021 Nittany AI Challenge.
She began her entrepreneurial journey as a freshman in the Engineering 310 Entrepreneurial Leadership course with an embedded study abroad trip to Israel. With a focus on technology, science, and data in her studies, Rustagi was initially intimidated by the business aspect of entrepreneurship.
“I stumbled upon a study abroad fair, and that moment really changed my life,” Rustagi said. “That class was absolutely amazing, not only because Israel is really cool, but because the experience totally demystified entrepreneurship for me. Part of me originally thought running a business was a skill you’re born with, but it’s more about developing the skill – the more you do it, the better you get. We did a lot of case studies on why a lot of startups fail, and it really painted this more accessible picture for me.”
During the study abroad trip to Israel over spring break, Rustagi and her classmates formed teams with other students from a local university and were prompted to develop a startup idea utilizing the technical powers of AI.
Her team, composed of herself and three local MBA students, found commonplace in food and ideated What to Eat, a community-based food recommendation app that would help you decide what your next meal should be. Later that next summer, Rustagi learned What to Eat was selected for the final round of the competition, prompting her to return to Israel to prepare with her team and present their idea at the final pitch competition, at which they won third place.
With newfound confidence in her entrepreneurial ability, she next became co-founder of her first official startup, Vandra JMS, a job search management system with the goal of helping engineers who had lost internships due to the pandemic find jobs. The Vandra team participated in the FastTrack Accelerator program at Happy Valley LaunchBox, where they were able to do customer discovery and make iterations to their startup under the guidance of entrepreneurial mentors.
“From that experience, I really learned how to leverage my network, advisors, and Penn State resources,” Rustagi said. “This was when I really learned how many resources Penn State has specifically to support entrepreneurs.”
The co-founders of Vandra took what they learned from building the job search management system startup and decided to take that knowledge to pursue different entrepreneurial avenues.
In fall of 2020, Rustagi attended a Nittany AI Alliance expert panel event on Health, AI, and the Greater Good. She noticed that of all the medical advancements being discussed, mental healthcare was not represented.
“Psychiatry is something I’m very close to, partly because my mom has schizophrenia,” Rustagi said. “I grew up knowing the state of healthcare, and with my dad being a cardiac surgeon in India, we were in a more fortunate position than a lot of other people in India who have mental illnesses. It was only two years ago when she finally got the right treatment, and so I knew this field was something I wanted to get into.”
In January 2021, Rustagi formed a team of eight people and submitted her idea for Apoio to the year-long Nittany AI Challenge, which offers Penn State students the opportunity to address pressing global issues and build solutions using AI and machine learning, regardless of technical skill or expertise.
“From the first day I met with Divya, I could tell she was driven to help others and make an impact on the world,” says Brad Zdenek, Innovation Strategist for the Nittany AI Alliance. “Over the course of the past year I have watched her build the Apoio team and guide them in the development of a solution to a real problem faced in the mental health space. She demonstrated a tenacity and knack for innovation driven by her passion to help others. She represents much of what makes our Penn State student body truly unique.”
That spring, Rustagi also attended a Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC panel on innovation in mental health. She later connected with one of the medical professionals from the panel, who was surprised and excited to learn from Rustagi that it was even possible for AI to extract data from scanned forms and populate database fields.
“Innovation is only limited because of what people think is possible,” Rustagi said. “We have optical character recognition technology now; we just need to implement the technology into this field. That conversation which came out of Startup Week was a very critical learning point for us.”
Now, Rustagi’s AI-driven mental healthcare support startup has its first pilot customer – a psychiatrist based in Delaware – and plans to do a soft launch in 2022.
“Everyone on my team truly cares about the problem, we all have a personal connection, and we want to make something that actually helps mental health providers,” Rustagi said. “My advice to other student entrepreneurs would be don’t be afraid to ask for help. I would not have been able to do anything if it weren’t for all the people I’ve met – my teammates, advisors, and the people who championed me in so many ways. You need people, and it’s good to bounce your ideas off other folks.”