Tools that tackle cyberbullying, improve college students’ mental health and evaluate workplace stress are among the brainchildren of these entrepreneurial psychologists. Here’s a look at what sparked their ideas and how they brought them to market.

Samuel Farley, PhD
Measuring cyberbullying at work

When Samuel Farley, PhD, began thinking about workplace cyberbullying in 2012, he realized that there was little research on it and no scale to measure it.

"We were seeing things online that could constitute workplace cyberbullying, like someone criticizing their co-worker on Twitter or on Facebook, for example," says Farley, who at the time was a graduate student in occupational psychology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. He wanted to study whether workplace cyberbullying was as harmful (or more harmful) than in-person bullying, but the scales that researchers used to measure workplace aggression—which asked questions such as "Has your supervisor shouted at you in front of colleagues?"—didn’t apply to the online arena.

So, for his doctoral dissertation research, Farley developed his own assessment tool. He surveyed hundreds of employees about what they considered to be cyberbullying and created a preliminary 34-item scale based on their responses. Then, he sent that survey to hundreds more employees and analyzed their responses to further narrow down the survey to 17 questions. The final assessment, published in Work & Stress (Vol. 30, No. 4, 2016), includes items specific to cyber communication, such as receiving aggressively worded messages or having a co-worker copy people into messages that reflect negatively on you.

Now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, Farley is continuing to use the tool in his research. He plans to develop an intervention against workplace cyberbullying and will use the scale to assess whether the intervention is effective. He’s also had requests for the tool from researchers as far away as Egypt and Australia.

"That’s fantastic from my perspective," he says. "You develop something and you want it to be used. I’m glad this filled a gap."

Nathaan Demers, PsyD
Expanding the reach of college counseling centers

As a doctoral psychology intern at a college counseling center in 2013, Nathaan Demers, PsyD, loved helping students, but he was frustrated by the setting’s limitations. "There were waiting lists, and I was only able to see some students every third week," he says. "In my opinion, that wasn’t good enough."

So, Demers set out to find a novel way to address the issues that were bringing students to counseling in the first place, such as loneliness, substance use and academic difficulties. He joined an online digital health company to develop the YOU at College student well-being portal, which brings together information on physical and mental wellness.

The portal includes more than 500 videos, apps, tools and campus resources to foster students’ self-awareness and resilience. One video, for example, explains the difference between sadness and depression; another offers advice on roommate conflict. The portal also offers academic self-assessments (on issues such as procrastination and finding the right major), mental health self-assessments (including for depression and anxiety), and campus involvement and relationship self-assessments. Students who do the assessments are directed to customized resources, including immediate help, if needed.The breadth of resources draws in students who might not come to a portal that offered only mental health information, Demers says.

Launched at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, in 2015, the portal is now used by eight other colleges and universities. The beauty of the program is that it can help students anytime, anywhere, says Demers. "We can reach students at 3 a.m., when they can’t sleep, and provide sleep and anxiety resources, with the goal of preventing the precursors of mental health crises for each unique student. This type of prevention can greatly decrease the burden on college counseling centers," he says.

Michael Gordon, PhD
Increasing accountability

Twenty years ago, as head of an outpatient child psychiatry clinic, Michael Gordon, PhD, found that the clinic’s system for tracking patient data was woefully inadequate. Patient data were kept on legal pads and Excel spreadsheets, and offered no information on which provider saw each patient, on assigned diagnoses or even on the clinic’s revenue.

Given the increasing demands for documentation and accountability from the local county department of social services, Gordon knew he had to upgrade the system, yet none of the software programs on the market at that time met the needs of a mental health clinic. Fortunately, Gordon’s son Joshua, then a freshman at Cornell University, was a computer whiz. Over three years, the two built a system that began to address the clinic’s requirements for patient tracking and billing, then used staff feedback to refine it.

"Before we knew it, we had a program that not only captured the information we needed to create a legitimate electronic health record, but also included features that enabled people to use it as a practice and agency management tool," Gordon says.

Today, 100 mental health and related organizations in more than 40 states use the ClinicTracker platform. In addition to document management, clinical reporting and analytics, telehealth capabilities, billing services and other features, the software enables managers to assess staff productivity and improve service quality and efficiency.

Gordon’s continued aim is to ensure that ClinicTracker is as user-friendly and useful as possible. "We understand that most people would rather be seeing patients than working with an electronic health record, so we want to make the interaction as pleasant and productive as possible," he says.

Veronika Jakl, MSc
Evaluating work stress

Veronika Jakl worked with a mathematician to design an online tool that helps industrial-organizational psychologists measure worker stress.Since 2013, Austria has required all employers to annually assess workers’ stress. The law has led to a windfall for the country’s industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologists, but it also created technological challenges for them because there was no way to capture all of the information the government was requiring, such as levels of employee stress, their social supports, their trust in superiors and colleagues, and more.

Enter I/O psychologist and tech guru Veronika Jakl, MSc, of Vienna, Austria. "Several of my colleagues approached me after the law passed and said, ‘I don’t want to waste my time transferring hundreds of paper and pencil surveys into Excel. You’re pretty technologically savvy, can’t you do something to make it easier?’" she recalls.

So, Jakl worked with technical mathematician Alexander Dick to turn an evidence-based paper survey for employees known as the BASA II into an online tool that has enabled the country’s I/O psychologists to spend less time gathering employee data and more time analyzing it for ways to lessen their stress.

"Before you can really improve employee health, you first need to know what stressful working conditions your company has," Jakl says.

Nearly 150 companies have used the survey so far, and the hope is that it will boost worker health, which research shows is good for a company’s bottom line, she adds. "In less stressful conditions, people are more motivated, more productive and less absent from their jobs."

Jason Anderson, PsyD
Collecting essential data

As a clinical psychology graduate student in 2002, Jason Anderson, PsyD, noticed that his fellow students at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, were using paper to record their clinical hours—which he saw as a risky way to track information that would be tough to recreate if lost. He also noticed that many students weren’t including much detail on patient demographics, treatment type and tests administered—information they would need when applying for internships.

To track his own hours, Anderson had created a spreadsheet that enabled him to record all that information. When other students asked for copies, he recognized an opportunity to help grad students everywhere. He maxed out his credit cards to hire a computer programmer who worked with him to launch Time2Track, a web-based application now used by 22,000 students and professionals each year to store all the clinical information needed to apply for internship and licensure.

In 2010, he sold the business to focus on his private practice, WellSpring Psychology Group in Florence, South Carolina. But the itch to innovate has stuck with him. Recently, he and WellSpring co-founder Edward "Buddy" Searce, PsyD, created CheckIN360, an iPad-based notification tool that streamlines the client check-in process at their 14-person group clinic. When a client signs in on an iPad in their waiting room, the clinician receives a text message alert on his or her smartphone. The tool has changed the whole dynamic of the office by enabling more efficient use of their time, Anderson says.

Mark McMinn, PhD
Tracking student competencies

Dr. Mark McMinn developed software that tracks psychology students’ progress and reports back on areas where they might need more training.During his senior year at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, Mark McMinn, PhD, took a software development class on a whim. "I thought that sounded kind of fun, and I ended up loving it," recalls McMinn, now a psychology professor at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.

For the past 35 years, he has developed computer software in his spare time, including an iOS app for monitoring psychotherapy outcomes and alliance over the course of therapy. About four years ago, his "hobby" intersected with his work as a psychology professor again when his department needed to ensure its graduate students were getting the education required to be competent in clinical practice.

To respond to that need, McMinn developed the Competency-Linked Assessment System, or CLAS, which aligns every class assignment to competencies the school requires a student to master, such as professionalism or scientific knowledge and methods. The software, which can be accessed through an iPad or iPhone, puts all student assignments into a database so that faculty can see how students are progressing and in which areas they might need more training.

"If we want to know how students did on a particular competency over five years in a particular class, we just punch a couple buttons and it’s right there," McMinn says.

His program has improved how faculty conduct student evaluations and has saved professors hours of sifting through Excel documents to piece together the information they need. "It’s been fun to do this work because I really understand as an educator what I want the software to do."

Jonathan Perle, PhD
Enhancing ADHD treatment 

Parents of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and disruptive behavior disorders often rely on "parent management training," the intervention that teaches moms and dads how to reduce problem behaviors and encourage positive, prosocial behaviors. But stress and busy schedules often keep parents from following through with the protocol’s recommendations, such as praising children or using time-outs delivered in a calm and consistent manner. 

Midwestern University assistant professor Jonathan Perle, PhD—who used and trained others in this protocol at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and other locations—created an answer to that problem. He designed a smartphone app with two main features: individualized pop-up notices that correspond to topics he discusses with parents and a record-keeping function that enables parents to log in "ABC" (antecedent, behavior and consequence) data. If a parent is working with a child to reduce outbursts, for example, he or she will be able to record what was occurring at the time of the outburst and how the parent responded, the child’s immediate behavior, and the ultimate outcome for child and parent.

Perle is pilot-testing the app with parents to see if it improves adherence, and if so, he hopes to collaborate with other providers to consider application on a wider scale.

"It was designed as a simple, straightforward, user-friendly method of reaching people in need of care," he says.

—Compiled by Jamie Chamberlin, Tori DeAngelis, Amy Novotney and Lea Winerman