07.11.2022 / Florence von Gunten is one of four Venture Fellows of the newly founded Innovation Office at the University of Bern. She received the grant for her start-up YLAH, which is working on a digital solution for “blended psychotherapy”: the combination of classical psychotherapy with online tools.
Interview: Nicola v. Greyerz
Florence von Gunten, what is YLAH about?
YLAH is an app to complement on-site psychotherapy – in the sense of “blended psychotherapy”. This combines face-to-face treatment with digital interventions between therapy sessions. The app is intended to complement and support therapy. It is resource-oriented and aims to promote the self-empowerment of patients. Our great strength is the interactive and dialogical. YLAH provides a catalogue of internet-based therapy activities that can be individually adapted and expanded. We attach great importance to developing ideal usability with appealing interfaces. Life is hard enough as it is, the app should be fun for therapists and patients and motivate them to use it. However, YLAH is not just another well-being app, but is intended to cover the needs of a clinical application – as medical device software. We have therefore very consciously decided to take the complicated and expensive path of certification as a medical device.
How did you come up with the idea?
Originally, I come from a classical nursing background, where I started working in psychiatry very early on, especially with adolescents in inpatient settings. I went to university via the Passerelle and did my Master’s in Psychology in Berne in 2020. I was particularly fascinated by studying with Professor Thomas Berger who has been dealing with the topic of online psychotherapy for years. I had already gained a lot of practical experience through my many years of working in adolescent psychiatry. I realised that there was nothing that could pick up these young people where they were – in the digital space. The desire to do something about this grew in me and I began to develop a concept.
My concept grew and grew. It became a huge construct with speech recognition, virtual reality and, and, and. At the end of 2019, naïve as I was, I invited three personalities from the University of Bern, whose work I greatly admired, to present my idea to them: Thomas Berger, Jennifer Inauen and Felix Wichmann. This presentation was a disaster!
At that time, I didn’t know what a pitch was and that you have to be able to convey your idea in five minutes. I explained my concept to the three of them for an hour and a half. They said quite clearly that I was in the wrong place at university and needed to go into the start-up world. Completely dejected, I went back to Bristol – I was there for a research stay – and thought I could never show my face in Bern again.
But the idea didn’t let me go and I attended a start-up course in England. There I realised that thinking about business can be a lot of fun: thinking about what an ideal product could look like, how it could be financed, and taking a customer and investor perspective.
But you ventured back to Bern after all. What happened next?
With the start of the 2020 pandemic, I came back and wrote my master’s thesis. Along the way, I signed up for a business planning course at Innosuisse. My project was selected so that I could work on it with different people. That was an absolute stroke of luck: for the first time, others thought about my business project and developed it further with me.
In a next step, you applied for – and received – a Venture Fellowship Grant from the University of Bern. What does that mean for you?
This grant is also an absolute stroke of luck. It came at exactly the right time. Because I want to bring my idea to the market. I had been working intensively on the project for months – without a part-time job, without a salary. Then came the call for proposals. To win one of the four grants, you not only have to present a good business model, but also provide the translational research. Thanks to the grant from the University of Bern, I now finally have an income with which I can work fully on the project for a year and cover various project costs. Especially in the start-up phase, such capital is crucial.
In addition, we are advised and supported by great people: Lutz Nolte from the Innovation Office at the University of Bern coaches us, psychology professor Thomas Berger advises us on a technical level, and with Thierry Kneissler, the former CEO of Twint, we exchange ideas on topics such as licensing models or regulations. Thomas Berger and Thierry Kneissler are also co-founders of our AG, which we founded in May this year.
You have taken a lot of risks. What drives you?
People with mental illnesses are often chronically ill. I want to do something to help these people get the best possible support so that they can become independent again as quickly as possible. But to do that, we need to break down the conventional, rigid framework of current forms of therapy. And we need to better understand – based on data – how a patient’s condition changes in the course of therapy. YLAH also wants to achieve this. With the goals of making the therapy process more flexible through improved insight and, in the longer term, giving more people improved access to psychotherapeutic treatment.
Where do you see YLAH in three, five and ten years?
I hope that in three years we will have a well-developed, certified product on the market that is recognised by the health insurance companies. In five years, I want us to have a good market share beyond Switzerland. And yes, it would be great if in ten years YLAH were a stable and popular SME that can pay its employees a good wage, that is at the interface between research and practice and can thus positively influence conventional psychotherapy. And which is perhaps attractive enough to be bought out in a vision that suits us.
ABOUT FLORENCE VON GUNTEN
Florence von Gunten completed a degree in psychology via the second educational pathway, before which she worked as a health and nursing professional. She is currently studying psychotherapy at the University of Bern and translational medicine and biomedical entrepreneurship at sitem-insel.
ABOUT THE START-UP YLAH
YLAH is a start-up with the aim of integrating a digital form of psychotherapy into everyday clinical practice. The founders are Florence von Gunten and Cordelia Trümpy. In close cooperation with the University of Bern, in particular with Prof. Dr. Thomas Berger from the Institute of Psychology, YLAH is developing a solution for inpatient and outpatient psychotherapy practice in Switzerland. With the blended approach, traditional on-site psychotherapy sessions can be complemented with internet-based interventions in patients’ daily lives.
ABOUT THE INNOVATION OFFICE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF BERNE
The Innovation Office of the University of Bern was founded in September 2021. It is the central point of contact for all questions related to innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Bern and Inselspital, the University Hospital of Bern. The mission of the Innovation Office is to support entrepreneurial scientists and students at an early stage, to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and to proactively position the University in the innovation and start-up ecosystem in Switzerland.
ABOUT THE UNIBE VENTURE FELLOWSHIP PROGRAMME
The Innovation Office of the University of Bern offers its own funding programme, the UniBE Venture Fellowships. Each year, this programme supports two to four young researchers who want to take their first steps towards entrepreneurship and turn their scientific findings into innovative products and services at the University of Bern. The aim of the fellowships, each endowed with up to CHF 100,000, is to continue the applied research underlying the innovation in order to validate the technical feasibility (proof-of-concept) of an innovative solution and to prepare for commercialisation accordingly.
07.11.2022, contribution from unibefoundation.ch