Penn State student looks to improve well-being with music

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — We’ve all been there. You wake up frustrated, your mind immediately running a tally of all the tasks you have to complete. Or, you’re feeling sad, weighed down by fear or doubt from setbacks you experienced the previous day. You’re not looking forward to the day ahead.

But then, something seemingly miraculous happens. You turn on the radio, or Spotify, and hear a song you haven’t heard in years. You get excited and crank it up. You escape your negative thoughts and feel joy, and maybe you have a bit more spring in your step that entire day.

Alex Patin, a Penn State junior majoring in computer science, is tapping into the neuroscience behind that experience as CEO of Musical Minds, a company that’s working to recognize the unique emotional connections we each have to music in hopes of improving our states of being.

The product, called “Trills,” consists of a pair of brainwave sensing headphones that connect to a music recommendation engine. “To begin, you open the app and choose whether you want to be uplifted, motivated, focused or relaxed,” said Patin, a Newtown, Pennsylvania, native. “A playlist is dynamically generated and, as it plays, the brainwave-sensing headphones begin gathering information about how your brain is responding to the music — basically, comparing song features and mapping them to positive or negative neural activity. Every subsequent time the engine generates a playlist, the better it gets at recognizing what your brain responds to.”

Patin, who has been interested in music his whole life, said the creation of Trills has been an iterative process and is currently in the initial consumer-faced stage of the business. But Patin and his team have set their sights much higher.

“We actually started out as an Alzheimer’s disease research project, trying to find songs that would result in positive neural responses from those who suffer from Alzheimer’s,” said Patin. “We plan to grow into helping people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Autism.”

Studies have shown that music therapy can be very beneficial to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as music from one’s past, and the emotional connections it evokes, can help strengthen neural connections in the brain as it starts to deteriorate. In Parkinson’s patients, music therapy has been shown to decrease tremors.

To fund the work on his now 35-member team, Patin originally pulled from his own pocket, but was soon able to tap into other resources, including those Penn State makes available for student entrepreneurs with promising ideas. The first place Patin pitched his idea was Lion LaunchPad.

Anne Hoag, the co-director of Lion LaunchPad and director of the Intercollege Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, or ENTI, said the initiative is the “one place that undergraduates can go for very specific mentoring and micro-grants.”

“Often, students just need small amounts of money to make a really big difference,” Hoag said. “We’ve paid for students to finance their prototyping. We’ve financed students to file their incorporation papers. We’ve financed students who are doing customer research.”

According to Hoag, Musical Minds used their $500 Lion LaunchPad grant to offset expenses for prototyping at The Learning Factory, a unit in Penn State’s College of Engineering.

Hoag and Lion LaunchPad co-director and clinical associate professor of entrepreneurship, Peter Whalen, help students craft their presentations before they’re ready for an official pitching session.

The program, Hoag said, is a “critical piece of the Penn State entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

“We meet with students when they need to,” Hoag said. “We mentor them, give them advice and help shape their business concepts.”

Patin found his pitching session with Hoag and Whalen to be extremely valuable. “I got feedback about what should be going into my pitch to investors, feedback about our target market and pricing confidence, and a lot of general advice across the board which was really nice.”

For Patin, the most difficult part of his entrepreneurial journey so far has been knowing when to reel back. “One of the great things about Penn State is there are so many opportunities for entrepreneurs, and I wanted to take advantage of all of them,” said Patin. “But it got to the point where I had meetings scheduled nonstop from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and then had to do my school work.”

Yet, in spite of these challenges, Patin urges other students at Penn State to use the many resources available to them. “Your project doesn't have to be something that you dedicate your whole life to at first, but if you take advantage of the opportunities at Penn State it may well become that.”

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Last Updated January 24, 2017