His journey as an innovator in the mental healthcare space began when Mullen was in graduate school getting a PhD in mechanical engineering. His research focused on designing technology to help reduce the use of physical or chemical restraints on patients with mental illness. “The use of restraint is too often used in mental healthcare,” says Mullen. “And using it at all is considered a treatment failure.”
Mullen partnered with an occupational therapist at UMass Amherst to develop a low-risk, sensory-based intervention that relies on firm touch or pressure to help calm people with autism. He founded Therapeutic Systems LLC in 2008, and their initial product, the Vayu vest, won gold at MassChallenge in 2011.
VCs have been slow to invest in technology for mental healthcare, and when Mullen launched his product in 2011, raising funds was difficult. “The market for technology for mental illness wasn’t ready yet,” says Mullen. “VCs are starting to get into that market now, but for a long time it wasn’t an area of interest for investors.”
So while Mullen waited for the market to pick up, he continued to advocate for technology innovation in the mental health space, and he helped to draft legislation advocating for state support of mental healthcare innovation in Massachusetts. He also began working as the Innovation Strategy Manager at the Brigham Innovation Hub, where he helps doctors and researchers advance their innovative ideas.
Currently Mullen is replicating an earlier study that measured the benefits of the Vayu vest, with hopes of bringing his product to market with supporting research. “I’m very excited to continue to work in the field of mental health technology to figure out how to bring evidence based products to market for a population that is incredibly underserved,” he says.
Abigail Ballou, Alexandra David, Shreya Iyer and Casey Nugent contributed to this story.
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