Using Tech to Introduce Mindfulness with vrtumind

Nolan Clarke — Co-founder, COO, and Head, Unity Development

Picture above: Nolan Clarke (Co-founder, COO, and Head, Unity Development of VRTUMIND)

Introduce yourselves: Name, age, where are you from?

My name is Nolan Clarke and I’m the Co-founder and COO of vrtumind. I’m 19 and from Evanston, Illinois. I have 3 other Co-founders/teammates, Benjamin Ray (CEO), Brendan Rattin (CFO), and Siddartha Adatrao (CTO).

What is vrtumind? How has your experience being students inspire the creation of vrtumind?

Vrtumind is a mindfulness app designed primarily for students and busy professionals. As students, we’ve experienced the student mental health crisis first hand, however, we also noticed that the majority of students don’t use the big name meditation apps like Calm and Headspace. We realized that students need simple, quick, and personalized sessions, and that inspired us to build the app.

What are the different features?

When you open the app all you have to do to access a meditation session is make 3 selections: “how long do you have?”, “what do you want to focus on?”, and “what background noise do you prefer?”. Additionally, there is a profile page where you can select preferences that influence your content and toggle your desired push notifications. In the next update, we plan to add a meditation streak feature to the home page and continue making our sessions more personalized.

What differentiates vrtumind from other meditation and mindfulness apps?

Vrtumind is different from other meditation apps because rather than scrolling through options and navigating curriculums, the app uses an algorithm that takes preferences into account and stitches together meditations to deliver the most effective session, on-demand. Additionally, we deliver identity related content and have used some psychological principles to make the experience as habit-forming as possible. We also have plans to make the app accessible to the hard of hearing and deaf community, which no other app has done yet.

How did you complete the background research to create an app in the meditation and mental health space? Did you have any mentors to help you in the process of establishing vrtumind?

Background research was very important to the development of our application. Developers tend to want to develop quickly, but we realized that something as sensitive as mental health can’t be rushed. Since September 2019, we have been researching what it is about mindfulness and meditation that makes them so successful. With younger generations, we found attention wanders more often, so with the help of our mentor, Dr. Brenda Nelson, we have been able to identify and offer quick, and effective meditations.

What is the process of developing an app and getting it out on the app store? What tools did you use to code and design it?

We started our journey with relatively little knowledge of iOS or android app development but researched and discovered the simplicity and power of iOS development. We also found that the student population, especially those that we knew, were using iOS devices more. To code our app, we utilized Apple’s Swift language in Xcode. To push an app onto the app store you first need to develop the app with certain design, security, and storage standards set by Apple. To ensure that your application is crash proof, Apple provides a testing platform called Testflight which allows developers to give certain approved and managed testers access to the app for bug testing. Once we were confident that we had met these standards and had a relatively stable release, we submitted our app for review and made an app store page as well. Our review process took about 36 hours before users were ready to access our app. Having developed through the school year and with a varied number of developers, this app took us about 6 months to complete. 

How did you learn how to code the app? What did you do when you got stuck? How much programming experience do people need to develop an app?

Coming into this project, our developers had experience with various programming languages but not with Swift specifically. Much of our initial learning is done by learning through google and youtube as we are building the app and require certain functionalities. As every developer knows, the best developer is not actually that good at coding, just really good at googling. I would say however, that through the process of building this app, we have all gained a tremendous amount of experience in SWIFT.

Did you have to look into any sources of funding for the product? If so, what advice do you have to other aspiring entrepreneurs who don't know where to start with the financials?

We have received funding for our project from various startup competitions and the University of Illinois’ iVenture Startup Accelerator. We have been propositioned by external companies and organizations for funding in exchange for equity as well, but we have avoided this. For aspiring entrepreneurs, we suggest to always look for funding that doesn’t take equity first, funding sources such as grants and competitions. Once you begin to get paying customers and you need to scale, then looking for funding would be appropriate. I just caution to look out for agencies that will take advantage of you and do your due diligence and research before receiving this kind of funding.

How do you market your app effectively?

For app marketing, especially following a lean startup model, you need to take advantage of free resources first. Once you have an app published on an app store, have your friends and family, and anyone you meet download your app and rate it  to improve app store optimization. Take advantage of social media platforms such as Reddit and Facebook to get your first users outside of your immediate circle. Get into contact with your users and see your retention rate overtime. If your daily average users is sufficiently high, you may be ready to use paid marketing. You should have a mentor you can consult with throughout this process as well.

From where can users download the app?

The vrtumind app is available to be downloaded via the Apple Store. You can download from here.

What are the different components that go into the creation of an app? Do you have different team members in charge of  business, logistics, and tech? 

There are a variety of components that go into developing an app. Obviously technical development is one of those components, however, that can be broken down even further. Within technical development, there’s design, front-end development, and back-end development and even those can be broken down further. Additionally, beyond development there’s operations, marketing, networking, applying for grants, creating graphics for social media, and more. On our team; Ben, Sidd, and I do most of the development work while Brendan primarily works on content creation. We all also handle other nontechnical work like marketing, networking, applying for grants, creating graphics for social media, etc.

How do you get feedback from people? Do you have any plans for updates or expansion?

We currently source feedback from different places. We have users who we regularly check in with to see if they encounter any bugs and if they have any suggestions for updates in the future. We also have mechanisms for feedback in the app, which allows us to reach more users, and we monitor our posts on reddit to see if anyone has suggestions for improvement, and finally, if we receive app store reviews, we always check them. 

For updates and expansion, we are currently focused on personalization of identities. We strive to make our meditations as effective as possible, and what many apps fail to incorporate in their meditations are user identities. We know that members of marginalized communities face unique problems, so we are planning on allowing our users expanded content that works with sexual and gender identity, race and ethnic background, and even meditations for students. These are sensitive topics, so we are working closely with experts and members of these communities to ensure their accuracy and efficacy. 

What advice do you have for young developers and entrepreneurs?

  1. Mental health is a prerequisite to productivity.

  2. Work on projects that genuinely excite you.

  3. Drink 2 glasses of water right when you wake up.

What are you other interests and hobbies outside of developing vrtumind? How have you been occupying yourself during quarantine?

I love playing sports, hiking, snowboarding, and being social. During quarantine, I’ve kept myself busy by working on this app.

What are your educational and career goals?

I’d like to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, but have enough knowledge about electrical engineering and computer science to be able to unify the fields in my work. As for my career, I’d like to found a startup in a field that is really important to me (e.g. environmental sustainability or biotechnology). 

What are your favorite movies and TV shows?

Movies: Interstellar, The Sandlot

Shows: Black Mirror, Breaking Bad





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