Meet Ayako Shimizu, founder of Hikari Lab Inc., a startup that develops and distributes video games based on cognitive behavior therapy to treat mental illness.
Its innovative project is called SPARX, which stands for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic and X-factor thought. These games enable people to train their brains out of depression.
While SPARX has clinical data to show real therapeutic value, Ayako had hard time getting support and understanding from big organizations at the beginning, which almost shut down her project last year.
However, the project tickles us to find and contact Ayako. And she really has fascinating story to tell. Here is our interview session with Ayako Shimizu.
Hello Ayako! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Wahidin, sure. I am a founder of HIKARI Lab Inc. I used to work in financial industry but I always had interest in clinical psychology so I quit banking and went to grad school to study clinical psychology. I started HIKARI Lab Inc. during my master years.
And also, could you tell us about HIKARI Lab and what it does?
HIKARI Lab provides mental health care services. We currently have 2 services, one is online counseling, Kokoroworks and the other one is gaming application, SPARX. As for online counseling, we only have clinical psychologists, the experts of psychological counseling. As for SPARX, it is a role playing game which you can learn how to control your mood. Through our service, we aim to make a society in which people have easier access to psychological care.
The SPARX project is actually a game and we were surprised to hear that it can treat mental illness. Could you tell us how it works?
It is rather a self help tool. SPARX is based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is one of the most used psycho-therapies. CBT considers your thought, emotion and behavior are interconnected and it aims to change your emotion and behavior through altering your thought. What SPARX does is to help users learn how to have alternative way of thinking through role playing game. The story line is that your avatar goes into a fantasy world which is full of negative emotions and you learn CBT through saving that world.
Have you done any clinical studies to back up this treatment?
SPARX was originally developed by the University of Auckland and they have done the study. Here is the detail of study >> http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2598
Since SPARX is a new method to treat mental illness, did you find difficulties on the project in terms of development and getting support?
Yes and No. Surely a lot of people are helping me now but it was difficult to share the image of what SPARX actually is at the beginning since it was a completely new concept.
You worked for Barclays and Goldman Sachs before. What has made you switch to run a medical startup?
Well, I always had interest in clinical psychology. As you know, mental illness is a global issue. However a lot of people, especially people in Japan, hesitate to use mental care because of the negative image of it and worsen the symptom. I’d been wanting to change such situation. That is why I focus on easy and fun care.
What is your view about the future of medical treatment for mental illness?
I think there will be various ways to treat mental illness. It doesn’t have to be only medication nor counseling. Game is just one way. I have more in mind but I won’t stop once I start so maybe next time. haha.
What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Strength: I am good at turning ideas into action Weaknesses: I may be moody when I work too much haha.
If you have the power to change the world, what would it be?
I would implement “Cherishing Yourself Program”, a program for children to learn how to cherish themselves, into all the schools in the world – as it would help people maintain high self-esteem which leads them to be just themselves without any worries. If people can be contented with themselves, they will take better care of themselves, pursue their real dreams, be kind to others and simply, be happier, I think.
If you’d like to know more about Hikari Lab and SPARX, have a visit at hikarilab.co.jp.