Managing a chronic illness is challenging, whether it is your own or a loved one’s. Starting and running a business also poses unique challenges. If you struggle with a chronic illness, have started a business, or want to start a business, this blog series can help guide you. “Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind” offers key insights into chronic disease and mission-driven entrepreneurship by some of the most innovative patient entrepreneurs in the world.
Ryan Stoll is the Founder of COMPASS for Courage.
As a patient entrepreneur, can you describe your personal connection to anxiety/depression and how this experience drove you to innovate the space?
I think there are two sides to this connection and the first is definitely the personal side. As a child and teen, I struggled pretty significantly with anxiety that was mostly social anxiety, self-doubt, and chronic worry about whether what I was doing was good enough. I felt the weight of overall anxiety and was suffering in silence, not necessarily realizing that what I was going through at the time was clinically dubbed as ‘anxiety’ AND something could’ve been done about it. That carried on pretty significantly throughout college. It took me away from social interactions because I was just too anxious to be around others (not that I didn’t want to connect). I took a job working nights at UPS and took all of my classes online. I stuck with my core group of friends that I had and pulled myself out of other situations to placate my anxiety. As that progressed, it was really when I shifted my career from art to psychology and got involved with the Courage lab (which I am still a part of today) that I started to get exposed to research and how we can address anxiety. I saw not only how I could help myself but also how I could help other kids who are in the position I was in as a child. These findings led me to attend grad school and specialize in focusing my effort on understanding anxiety in children and teens. Specifically, not so much as to how anxiety starts and why it sticks around but rather, how do we prevent it from happening in the first place. It is important to remember that anxiety is also a normal emotion. You can’t get rid of anxiety like you can’t get rid of your happiness. It’s all part of an experience that you can effectually manage and prevent from getting out of control. That being said, COMPASS for Courage came out of my own personal experience, my time as a researcher, and what was happening in my lab.
What makes COMPASS unique and how does it meet an unmet need of the anxiety community?
Obviously, beyond the prevention side of things and focusing on children and adolescents, what makes COMPASS unique is it is a true evidence-based intervention. It evolved from scientific grants years ago to what we have today, which is essentially taking 30 years of science, streamlining it, gamifying it and offering it to today’s youth. When we look at what is available on the market for anxiety, most of it is treatment-focused, teen/young adult-focused, or expensive, time consuming and challenging to use. Accessibility and ability to purchase is also an issue. With COMPASS, I’ve been able to remove a lot of these barriers to create something that is fun and leads to a better life for children.
We train school mental health providers and COMPASS is offered through the school beyond the classroom. Because this is prevention, we are preventing anxiety disorders at the first sign of suffering. We have to determine how high an adolescent’s anxiety is presently and if it is at a level that if we don’t do anything today it will become a disorder. In other words, they are on the trajectory towards an anxiety disorder later. We are in the business of courage building instead of anxiety reducing that we classify as strength-based, instead of weakness-based, intervention.
Are there any other unmet needs of the anxiety community that you think should take priority in working to address? How are patient entrepreneurs well-suited to meet these needs?
I think right now the biggest unmet need is human capital to actually support people and help them advance to improve their anxiety or other mental health problems. There is such a lack of trained mental health professionals in comparison to the number of people who need support. It isn’t just increasing the products or solutions that entrepreneurs can provide in the space that is needed, but also enhancing the number of licensed professionals. If we don’t have people to deliver these products and services, we can’t have the impact in reducing the consequences and burden of anxiety and mental health as a whole. Although at COMPASS we are already involved with individuals that are licensed mental health professionals, we are expanding it to individuals who can provide support without going to school for 8 years. We are doing this by transferring what we’ve learned in the world of science and research to individuals already providing support like parents, teachers, etc.
In terms of how patient entrepreneurs are well-suited, being that we have typically struggled with the target issue, we have a very unique perspective in terms of what is needed and where the gaps in care are just from our own experience. We have something you wouldn’t necessarily see or go through if you just want to innovate from the outside without going through it yourself. Having a deep understanding as an entrepreneur as someone who struggles with it and studies it professionally, we are well positioned to leverage our personal story to affect change beyond our personal communities.
Where do you draw your inspiration and motivation from to keep forging ahead as an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry?
It can be tough when you are trying to pitch someone prevention when the place you see ROI comes further down the line through the outcomes. My research team, my graduate mentors and advisors push me because they believe in what I’m doing. I’m able to tap into that belief in me to push forward in what I’m doing when investors say no. Additionally, my wife is absolutely an inspiration and believes sometimes even more deeply than me in what I’m doing. I also draw inspiration just internally and reflect on my own experiences. Really, being in a position of having my PhD and extensive experience in the research world as well as in entrepreneurship I’m in a position where I can really affect change. Specifically, what I experienced as a child with anxiety doesn’t have to happen to the kids of tomorrow. This sentiment helps me when I’m frustrated and discouraged with the process of being an entrepreneur by focusing in on the big picture. As much as COMPASS is part of that vision, it’s just one example and the bigger picture of increasing access to mental health care and whatever it takes to do that is what I tend to draw from and push forward with.
Lastly, what do you do for fun to manage the stress of running a business as both a person with a personal connection to anxiety/depression and an entrepreneur? Do you have any similar advice on work-life-disease management balance to others out there thinking of starting a business to meet an unmet need of a chronic disease patient community?
What do I do for fun? That’s a great question. It’s kind of interesting because as an entrepreneur when you’re focused on a goal bigger than yourself it tends to overwhelm your life. I definitely listen to a lot of music and keep it going most of the time while I’m working to keep the energy up. What I really do for fun to unwind is art. Well before I was a doctor, researcher and entrepreneur, I was a designer and photographer. That was my first passion in life and my major in college was art before switching to psychology. I tend to do that more now to manage stress than I had done in the past. Music, art, and hanging out with my cats and wife all definitely reduce some of the stress and turns down the hype. As an entrepreneur, nonstop worry and thinking also requires a space to turn my brain off and not react to anything that’s going on for a little while. I’ve started meditation recently for this purpose. It is important to keep in mind that this work as an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry, furthermore mental health which is more challenging, is really hard. It is okay to struggle and feel like you’re not producing enough. It is okay because this is really hard work and it’s challenging but so fulfilling. It is keeping that in mind and not letting the anxiety and self-doubt that comes with running a business prevent you from actually doing it.