Story by: Laura Roloff

Denis McCarthy, professor of psychological sciences and director of the MU Alcohol Cognitions Lab was interested in conducting a study about alcohol consumption and decision making. He needed a research tool that would allow participants to easily report as they went about their daily lives on their state of mind, behaviors and factors influencing whether they chose to drive after drinking. 

McCarthy found his solution in his own backyard with TigerAware. The Mizzou startup offers a cross-platform software system that makes it easier for researchers to collect mood, substance usage and other data in real time from individuals using an app on their smart phones. It was developed by Timothy Trull, Curators’ Professor and Byler Distinguished Professor in psychological sciences; Yi Shang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and company co-founders and recent graduates Will Morrison, Luke Guerdan and Connor Rowland. 

Trull, who is an expert in ambulatory and ecological momentary assessment methods used to capture participant experiences in their natural environment, said in the past, people in these daily life studies would wear pagers that prompted them to record their feelings and behaviors in paper-and-pencil diaries. This method was unreliable because participants would often “back fill” entries instead of recording them when prompted. 

TigerAware software can be used to develop custom surveys, track user progress and visualize data. It also integrates with devices that have wireless sensors, such as hand-held breathalyzers, smart shirts and wrist bands. 

“Researchers are able to access information almost as it happens, and there’s less likelihood people will have a retrospective bias or forget to mention things,” Trull said. “We have shown that people are pretty accurate about reporting how much they’re using of certain substances if they’re responding to an app.” 

Previously, Trull and other researchers hired software companies to develop “one-off” software applications each time they conducted a new research study. 

“We found that this was actually happening all across the country,” said Guerdan. “Behavioral health researchers were having to invest tens of thousands of dollars to develop customized software to collect their data.” 

This inspired the team to develop a generalized system that would be much cheaper and as easy to use as Google Forms. After building it, they formed TigerAware LLC and worked with MU’s Technology Advancement Office (TAO) to license rights to the software. 

“It’s great to see a team continue to advance software that they developed as researchers,” said Brett Maland, senior licensing and business development associate in TAO. “Often, applications developed under research grants ceases to be used after the grant runs out. However, in this case, the researchers saw a commercial opportunity, and now they could make money for their company and for the university.” 

Currently, the TigerAware team has commercial contracts and continues to tap the expertise of engineers and psychologists as they refine and add new features to their system. The company also has help on the business side. 

“TigerAware is taking advantage of many support services for startups at MU, including the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic, coaching and mentoring by the Missouri Innovation Center (MIC) and the Mizzou Venture Mentoring Service, and office space in the MU Life Science Business Incubator,” said Bill Turpin, CEO of the innovation center and associate vice chancellor of economic development at MU. “MIC specializes in helping commercialize innovations across a broad range of technologies, such as computer applications and medical devices.” 

Trull said that although the company is currently targeting addiction researchers, he sees broader opportunities, such as using the application in pharmaceutical trials to gauge how people are responding to medications during a given time period. 

“What you discover with this process is that there’s a big difference between a research prototype and a commercial project,” Guerdan said. “This experience has taught me about how valuable it is to work with interdisciplinary teams to solve real, concrete problems and to bring those solutions from an abstract solution into something that people find value in.” 

The TigerAware software system is helping make precision medicine, or personalized health care, possible. Precision medicine is a major component of the NextGen Precision Health Institute. By partnering with government and industry leaders, the institute will empower interdisciplinary collaborations and life-changing health advancements targeting individual genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. 

“What we’re finding with these sorts of methods is that there are some general rules about peoples’ responses, but so much of response to various treatments or interventions is quite individualized,” Trull said.