Quarterback, scholar at a top college, budding entrepreneur — Stephen Michael Smith '17 has racked up more than his share of successes. But less than three years ago he could barely leave the house as he struggled with severe symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition that affects millions of Americans, causing uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors.
Since 2014, Smith has been working with a pair of college friends to come up with a mobile app he believes would have helped him during the worst of his struggles and will help others with OCD. Called nOCD, the app records real-time biometric data, tracks what kind of episodes are happening, offers guided cognitive behavioral exercises, keeps users accountable to staying on track with their treatment, and allows doctors to log-in, access these reports and offer customized treatment for their patients. The app was just launched in Apple's App Store.
"My worst episodes never occurred when my doctor was with me, so when I needed help the most I was always on my own," says Smith. Even when he saw his doctor, he says it was problematic since self-reporting symptoms is subjective and OCD patients "commonly doubt some of the most basic things about themselves or about whatever they are doing." Plus, the treatment plans were generalized.
What sets nOCD apart, says Smith, is the objective data, guidance on the go, structured homework and the tailored treatment doctors can turn around after viewing the information.
Thanks to some good old-fashioned networking and cold-calling, Smith and company raised $80,000 in funding from private investors; found a medical advisor; and placed a leading health entrepreneur Glenn Tullman (founder of AllScripts, CEO of Livongo Health and Forbes magazine contributor) on their board. They also hired a software developer, and now, Smith reports, 85 doctors in five countries are in the process of implementing the app in their practice.
Dr. Elena Labkovsky of Northwestern University offered her endorsement on the nOCD website, saying that with conditions like OCD, getting objective feedback is crucial for patients and "nOCD allows that. Just this feature itself makes nOCD an effective and promising therapeutic instrument," writes Labkovsky.
"I think nOCD's going to give millions of Americans help reclaiming their lives," says Ethan Prater-Fahey '17, technical co-founder of the app.
Board member Tullman, whose career has been spent running and investing in large health-care companies, also sees a lot of potential. He looks for consumer-focused health care apps and he believes nOCD fits the bill for what people are seeking.
"The future of health care is all about empowering consumers to take better care of themselves, and apps like nOCD are a perfect fit for enabling people when they feel an OCD episode coming on. They actually take charge and take control to better manage their own health," says Tullman.
Co-founder of nOCD Daniel Greenfeld says that there is a lag time between when mental health gets the tools that other industries are getting and "the structure that nOCD can provide between sessions is the next best thing to being with a therapist by such a large margin … nOCD opens up a world of objective data and benchmarking where it was desperately needed."
Smith, originally from Northbrook, Illinois, is a seasoned Division 3 college quarterback who is studying economics and Chinese. After coming to Pomona, he helped lead the Sagehens to a 20-14 win over Lewis & Clark in his second game, scoring a key second half touchdown before being sidelined for the year with an injury. A transfer from Trinity University, he threw 16 touchdown passes as a sophomore while at the Texas school. In high school, he played baseball, basketball and boxed, in addition to playing football.
Smith believes going through OCD treatment and conquering the disorder has enhanced his mental toughness in sports.
"As I went through treatment, one thing I always would tell myself is, 'Wow, this is really going to make me a better quarterback, since no pressure will ever compare to this," says Smith.
In turn, playing team sports has helped him prepare for the entrepreneurial life, he says.
"Coach [Roger] Caron and [John] Walsh lead a culture that prepares each player to unite and handle challenges as a team when they occur both on and off the field. As a result, players are encouraged to take risks, given the continual support behind them. While at Pomona, the team's encouragement has directly motivated me to go all in, and do my best work for nOCD," says Smith.
And Smith is definitely all in and aiming high.
"We're hoping nOCD revolutionizes the way mental health is treated. The answer lies within technology, especially with mobile, on-the-go, technology. At the end of the day, mental health problems stem from a neurological, physical condition. That said, you should seek treatment for it, as you would seek treatment for another crucial organ in your body, like your heart. If you are having heart problems, you definitely are going to want more proof than just the doctor's subjective analysis. You are going to want physical evidence. With commercially available mobile technology nowadays, that evidence supporting your mental health condition is retrievable," he says.
"What turned the key for me in the [OCD] struggle was my frustration due to the lack of help available. People shouldn't have to work through a chronic condition of this magnitude alone," says Smith.
One might say Smith's compassion is mobile.