It was the kind of frantic moment every parent dreads. Christina York watched her young daughter become hysterical as doctors struggled to extract an object lodged in her ear. They eventually had to restrain and sedate the little girl to complete the procedure. There must be a better way, thought York. Her answer was SpellBound, a tech company that builds interactive augmented reality games for children in hospitals. SpellBound’s signature game is ARISE, a swirling, vibrant undersea scavenger hunt that is played on a smartphone app. ARISE helps caregivers address a variety of challenges such as reducing dependence on pain medication and motivating rehabilitative movement.

A colorful world for lonely kids

ARISE was being used in pediatric wards when Covid-19 hit. Children had to be quarantined in their rooms for safety and busy healthcare workers struggled to find ways to keep them engaged and moving. U-M, an existing SpellBound client, asked the company how they might be able to adapt the software to work exclusively inside patient rooms. SpellBound responded with a mission-driven game “giving purpose to kids who have no control,” says York. ARISE was adapted to overlay a patient’s room with an exciting undersea world where they can collect rewards and objects to create a complex coral reef ecosystem. Children have to move between the augmented reality (AR) “reef” by their bedsides and AR wall decals to help sea animals rebuild their home. York then wondered, “Can we think about digital tools kids can use that cover all of their patient journey, in hospital, at home, one day, ten days?”

A large grant from a surprising source

To build out the game and study its impact on young patients, York needed money. She applied for a joint grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. SpellBound was awarded $1.8 to research the effects of ARISE on pain and opioid use in pediatric cancer patients. “It was the first grant we ever got!” York enthuses. “I think it speaks to trends in health care even before Covid. The opioid crisis is massive and lots of people are tackling it. In pediatric oncology, because children have been through so many painful treatments and trauma, they often emerge with an opioid addiction.”

The grant is tracking whether the game reduces children’s dependence on opioids by distracting them from their pain, and encourages them to move their bodies. “It will measure them for six months after discharge,” York explains. “SpellBound will go home with them. Will they continue to use opioids after and how much? Does the SpellBound patient group get discharged sooner? Are they stronger from more movement?”

A warm welcome for entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor

York founded SpellBound in 2016 after working in technology for eighteen years. “I’ve worked in hospitals and that gave me an insight into the challenges clinicians have implementing technologies,” she says. As she built her company, she received help and found collaborators from many corners.

York is an Ann Arborite, but initially thought of locating her company in Detroit (she’s originally from Windsor, Ontario). But she decided to remain here, and that turned out to be “a big deal”, she admits. “If it weren’t for the Ann Arbor community and the way that it is we wouldn’t be able to survive here. Ann Arbor Spark. The Entrepreneurship Leadership Program. The First Customer Program. Desai Accelerator. U-M has a startup career fair. The New Enterprise Forum – that is a great one for matching with mentors and investors.” She has also benefited from the support of a number of regional women-centric funds, like Bell MI, Invest Detroit, and Girl Develop It.

Finding local talent to help her build the company wasn’t always easy. “In this region there aren’t a lot of people in this space,” she says. “We are looking here for people with passion who are self taught.” York works with A2Tech360 to get into schools where she encourages young people to rethink careers in the technology industry. “There is a preconceived notion that you have to be in code and tech if you are going to be in augmented reality,” York says. She tells kids, “You like to doodle? We can turn those doodles into 3-D interactive technology that can help kids with cancer!”

York sees more women in tech fields these days, something that was rare even a few years ago. “The fact that I have to wait for the ladies’ bathroom at tech meetups is a good sign!” she laughs. SpellBound’s work to use AR to improve patient care and attract new talent to the tech industry is one of many innovations on Ann Arbor’s burgeoning tech scene. As for York’s daughter, though she didn’t have the benefit of ARISE when she was in the hospital, she loves to play the game.