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Estonian startup Mental Pin invents an interplay between tech and mental health

With care and personal experience in mind, Estonian startup Mental Pin builds a new kind of device to treat Mental Health issues.

Estonia takes mental health seriously, with new startups at the forefront of using technology to improve it. Where do they come from? Mariin Petoffer, an interaction designer and founder of Mental Pin, used her experience with anxiety to design a device which will help people with mental health conditions. She focuses on creating technology that enhances, rather than disrupts, a human’s life, aiming for effortless interaction.

From academia to innovations

When picking a topic for her Master’s research in interaction design, Mariin Petoffer opted for an issue close to her: how to make emotions conveyed through a smartphone app tangible in a more natural way than is currently available? “I questioned people with different diagnoses to see how they handle their anxiety. For many sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), fidgeting is a way to calm down. This research led to the creation of a Mental Pin,” Petoffer says.

There are a variety of fidgeting toys on the market, but most of the time, these don’t give feedback to their users. Petoffer wanted to create something that would give physical feedback in real time: “I used in my research the scientifically proven method of interoceptive feedback. Feeling a physical connection to one’s pulse is an effective way to calm down.”

The prototype that Petoffer created in cooperation with engineers is a small pin that measures the pulse of the user and vibrates at the same frequency in response. The object helps to distract attention from the panic attack or the emotional reaction and turns one’s attention inwards. She considers this to be more natural and individual than the many applications that guide a user through different breathing techniques for calming.

The research project led her to interactive garments that could give feedback to the wearer. However, this is still in the experimental stage at the moment. Petoffer says that the pin is hopefully more suitable for people with anxiety, who quite often feel uncomfortable when wearing different devices close to the body. Also, the device is not measuring data constantly, the user can activate it when needed.

The pin itself currently only exists in twenty 3D-printed prototypes, and the team is looking into the possibility of producing a few hundred in Estonia to be used on a test group. Mental Pin is also working on the software to help track the episodes and to offer a tool to monitor, describe, and analyse the symptoms. After a while, mental health specialists and users can discover and analyse patterns and use this knowledge in therapy. Petoffer refers to her own experience: “While in therapy, I always tried to structure my thoughts of what to discuss. This systematic diary would have been very helpful.” First and foremost, people already in therapy or after therapy are the potential users of the Mental Pin’s device.


Fierce competition

Along with the awareness of mental health problems, there are more and more products and service providers who claim to help but might end up hurting. How to make sure that the device and the app will not interfere with the privacy of the users?

Petoffer assures that trust is crucial: “The issue of data privacy is at the core of the development. We don’t auto-collect data on users but rather offer a tool where they can enter their own data as they wish. And the users have control over access to data. In some cases, they might opt to share it with their therapist. The whole point is to offer a safe environment. Otherwise, it wouldn’t even make sense to develop this device.”

In terms of business, Mental Pin is still in the early stages. So far, the founders have invested their own money and have just held the first talks with potential investors. Petoffer acknowledges that health-related products, especially those including hardware, are a much harder sell to investors: “We have established some promising relationships, but they are waiting for us to show some traction first. We have to prove that we have a viable product and have done testing,” Petoffer notes.

Petoffer is hoping to grow the current team of three at least by adding a medical mental health specialist. She is adamant about staying science-based and serious in a marketplace that attracts many unqualified ‘therapists’. “The only point in dedicating time and effort to developing this product is to create something that is actually useful and helps people,” she says. Combined with academically valid content and advice, the Mental Pin tool could be a trustworthy assistant for people affected by mental health problems. 


Battling burnout

Building a startup itself is quite a stressful activity, and many people experience burnout and mental health problems on this path. How does Petoffer manage to stay healthy?

“I never dreamt of building a startup. The project was a natural follow-up to my academic research. It has been an experience of growing as a person, to make sure I stay calm and pay attention that the business doesn’t define me as a person. Also, being aware that every startup has a great potential to fail helps to keep calm. I just try to do my best, and if at one point the process is counterproductive for my own mental health, then I will put more focus back on it and get extra assistance to keep going,” assures Petoffer.

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