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This blog post was written by Ellie Gershenwald (Steinhardt '22) based on an interview with April 2022 Founder of the Month Dana Bevilacqua (FAS), Co-Founder of ViBILLER.
ViBILLER is developing a wearable sensor to measure group engagement and emotional arousal in real time and in naturalistic settings like live concerts and performances.
When Dana Bevilacqua teamed up with NYU Professor Pablo Ripolles and FAS Researcher Claire Pelofi to create ViBILLER, she didn’t have any prior entrepreneurial experience. With a background in research using electrophysiology, Dana was familiar with measuring neural signals to assess engagement in different settings. She had been researching brain to brain synchrony in the classroom, looking at student-to-student and student-to-teacher engagement in different learning styles. Dana had also used this science research knowledge in an art context, setting up installations using neural signals to create sound and light for audiences. This research mindset continued with the development of ViBILLER. Dana and her Co-Founders were looking for a way to measure and track the same types of engagement in a natural setting. Since emotions are dynamic and cannot be fully monitored in a lab, they needed a solution for the real world that did not rely on users to self-report.
Professor Ripolles’s primary research had focused on musical reward and emotion processing by looking at goosebumps, a known physiological marker to emotional experience. This research, in addition to the use of open source code and a Raspberry Pi, was the basis for the first wireless prototype the team built and used for research purposes. They then started to add new features to the device, including an LED light that was activated by different levels of emotional reaction. From piloting the prototype with this addition, Dana and her Co-Founders noticed the emotional contagion that occurred from users seeing others having that reaction. At this point, they started to think about how the technology could be interactive, and applied in social settings. The realization of how much we underestimate the need to have social interactions has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. It led Dana and her team to wonder: how can this device change live, social experiences?
Dana participated in the 3-day NYU Tech Venture Workshop in 2020 and was a part of the Fall 2021 NSF I-Corps cohort with her team. These programs were helpful as the team reigned in their ideas and learned how to commercialize their research. Dana noted the initial, but exciting, challenge of thinking about the technology in an entrepreneurial context and how it differed from the mindset of a researcher and scientist. She was accustomed to writing research grants and having less flexibility to “go wild with ideas and create from scratch.” Dana had to adapt to this different approach. She also had to accept the realization that the most viable way to go to market is not always your favorite idea. Dana’s interest leaned toward therapeutic spaces, but the team decided that the best path forward was the technology’s potential uses in concerts and other entertainment spaces. This area currently lacks reliable, objective ways of measuring crowd engagement and ViBILLER could fill that gap by using the physiological reactions to then trigger and activate different technologies, including sound and light features to encourage more interaction between users and performers.
As Dana looks forward to the future possibilities with ViBILLER and eagerly awaits the upcoming trials in entertainment venues this summer, she reflects on how far the team has come with the support of other entrepreneurs. Throughout both programs, her team completed countless customer interviews, attended office hours, and had the invaluable support of mentors Mir Hwang (CAS '19) and Evan Hart of GigFinesse (themselves past participants of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute's programs). All this support meant Dana was able to better interpret the feedback she received from her target audience and apply it more constructively to improve the product. The accelerator programs allowed her to learn an entirely new skillset and to get past the hurdles that come with breaking into the entertainment space.
Since the start of ViBILLER, Dana has reimagined what failure is as an entrepreneur. She recognizes that setbacks are just lessons learned and opportunities to “recycle, regrow, and pivot.” Her advice for other founders looking to commercialize their research is to be comfortable admitting what you don’t know, to embrace the mindset of collaboration, and to have fun!