Georgia Tech grads create app to help people quit drinking

Georgia Tech grads Vedant Pradeep, left, and Ziyi Gao, right, met in a chemical engineering class and became partners in app development, including a promising new one designed to help people quit drinking.
Georgia Tech grads Vedant Pradeep, left, and Ziyi Gao, right, met in a chemical engineering class and became partners in app development, including a promising new one designed to help people quit drinking.

With guidance of medical community, pair took idea from drawing board to app store

Under the premise that technology can enable people to break free from a negative habit loop and cultivate healthier behaviors on demand, two Georgia Tech grads created Reframe, a new app that uses neuroscience to help users quit alcohol. In going from the drawing board to the app store, Ziyi Gao and Vedant Pradeep relied on support from Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X startup launch program for student inventors and entrepreneurs.

The sobriety app has drawn 1,550 subscribers in four months. “We surmise that the quick growth, unfortunately, is due to the sharp rise in alcohol addiction due to the pandemic,” said Michael Polak, a Georgia Tech adjunct professor who mentored the pair through CREATE-X. “And Ziyi and Vedant work hard — these kids don’t sleep.”

Gao and Pradeep met in a chemical engineering class at Tech. From China, Gao graduated Tech with a degree in industrial engineering in 2017. Pradeep is from India but grew up in the United Arab Emirates; he graduated Tech with degrees in computer and chemical and biomolecular engineering in 2019.

Initially, the two 20-somethings worked together on a hypoglycemia detection product and then decided to create an app for obsessive-compulsive disorder, drawing on Pradeep’s own bouts of OCD. His disorder took several forms, including compelling him to check and recheck whether he locked a door. “When I am in the middle of that, I don’t see a path forward,” said Pradeep in an interview over Zoom. He figured out that the answer for him was disrupting the loop in his head until the compulsion subsided.

Conversations with medical experts at Emory University and Johns Hopkins caused them to shift the focus of their app to alcohol addiction, due to the magnitude of the problem and the lack of affordable recovery options. Gao and Pradeep found many people trying to control their drinking turn to online support groups, and have partnered with several to promote Reframe, tailoring the app to fit the community, such as stressed mothers.

Building on cognitive behavioral research that shows cravings on average last 20 minutes, the Reframe app sets out to provide diversions with the touch of a button. With the goal of interrupting the urge to drink, the app provides a 120-day behavior change program, mediations, mindfulness exercises, information on the science of addiction, built-in games, quizzes, messages and a journaling feature. It charts progress, changes and money saved from not drinking.

“The app has been so helpful as a resource to have in my sobriety toolbox — from the journaling prompts and affirmations, to breathing exercises and science lessons, it really covers all the bases. Even if you’re just considering taking a break from booze or reevaluating your drinking habits, this would be a great place to start,” said one user in a review of the app.

Among the physicians advising Pradeep and Gao is Mark Rapaport, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Reunette Harris Chair at Emory University School of Medicine. “I was very impressed with their passion and commitment. There is a need for the development for these types of digital approaches, particularly ones that are creative and comprehensive,” said Rapaport, who also connected the students with addiction experts in his Emory department.

Reframe’s success speaks to the dearth of professionals available to people dealing with substance abuse and mood disorders, said Rapaport, adding that a disproportionate number of Georgia mental health professionals practice in urban and suburban areas, leaving most counties in the state without a single psychiatrist.

Reframe allows people to address feelings of sadness or cravings in real time, said Rapaport. “These are young people developing the app, not old people trying to develop what would turn on young people. What they are doing is making it relevant to their generation.”

“These kids have done it right,’ said Rapaport. “They have been willing to reach out to seek advice from lots of people. They have been willing to not take no for an answer. They are constantly refining what they are doing.”

“We always admitted that we know nothing,” said Pradeep. “But we went to people who did know a lot. We talked to 500 people. There have been 32 iterations of the app since we started in the middle of 2019 — not just bug fixes, but essential, major overhauls.” Among the differences — a name change from Digital Sponsor to Reframe.

“We were deeply determined to make it work so we got feedback frequently from our customers and iterated rapidly,” said Pradeep. While the growing number of paying customers reassured Pradeep and Gao that their app was going to succeed, he said, “I think it really sunk in deeply when one grateful user sent us a really touching email telling us about how the app had saved her life and family. I’d say that was the first time we realized that it was actually going to work.”

“Beyond the medical applications, we are inherently a habit-change company,” said Pradeep. “Most resolutions go unfulfilled — if we have our way, that will no longer be the case. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, toxic relationships, internet, or intrusive thoughts, there’s a lot in common, which is usually why many times they show up together. We crave, engage, regret, and repeat — at the cost of our self-efficacy. In five years, we see Reframe as a mainstream solution that does for any substance use and behavioral addictions what Weight Watchers is currently doing for weight loss.”

Gao and Pradeep credit Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X program for funding their idea in 2018 with $20,000 pre-seed funding and mentors Polak and CREATE-X’s associate director Rahul Saxena for critical guidance. “Start-ups are so messy and it’s easy to get lost in detail especially in the beginning. CREATE-X helped us avoid a ton of missteps and it’d have been a lot harder to start without their support,” said Gao.

The pair have been bootstrapping with $120,000 from family and personal funds, said Pradeep. By doing most of the research, design, and development themselves until recently, they contained costs.

Their advice to other aspiring student entrepreneurs: “Don’t wait until you’re ready. Inertia can be your best friend or worst enemy. If you sit around scheming too long, it’s going to be the latter,” said Pradeep. “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News