by Nick Iannitti
An Interview with Rachel Francine, Co-founder and CEO of SingFit
We talk about the power of digital, interactivity and play from numerous contexts, from the burgeoning creative spaces emerging on every medium, to the powerful educational opportunities that they foster. Along the way, we constantly prepare ourselves for the innovations that these technologies will bring to light, and look forward to being surprised by the new areas that go digital.
In one of our previous issues, we touched on some of the ways tech and neuroscience can play nice, but, on the whole, one of the most burgeoning schools of research is therapy. When we heard about SingFit, our interest was immediately piqued. Created by seasoned entrepreneur Rachel Francine and her co-founder, music expert and therapist Andy Tubman, the app activates the powerful healing power of singing in patients of Alzheimer's and dementia.
With a combination of lyrical prompting, performance tracking, and tools for therapists, SingFit maximizes the power of digital to make it simple to employ these exciting pathways to healing, and has been featured in Forbes, USA Today, and won numerous awards. I sat down with Rachel to learn more.
First, for the simplest view of what the app's core function is, watch this video:
Ok, so SingFit is getting rave reviews all over the health care and therapy industries – how did it come about?
Our origin story is a little unique in the world of tech, given that the idea was originally thought of by my dad in the 1960s. He was an opera singer.
One of the core features of the app is its lyrics-prompting feature, and the idea of prompting the words to someone before they sing, was started in the opera. Of course, in the sixties, this was done with a little piece of technology known as ‘humans’. When my father would commute between his training in New Jersey to his opera performances in New York, he’d ask himself ‘why can’t I have the prompter in the car with me?’
Lou worked on and off on the idea for years as he genetically and socially engineered children to live out his dream.
I've been working in tech since 1996, and my brother Andy became a music therapist and we co-founded Musical health Technologies, along with our dad. As a music therapist, Andy brought to the table a wealth of knowledge and experience that would direct our efforts to make the most effective tool that combined music and therapy. In years of research, Andy had learned that lyric prompting could be far more useful than simply to remember the lyrics to Nessun Dorma.
When one sings, the entire brain lights up with neurological activity, so in the case of something like traumatic brain injury , music therapists can use singing and this lyric prompting technique to actually re-wire where speech takes place in the brain. Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, for instance, who received a gunshot wound in in the left hemisphere of her brain in 2012, credits this technique with giving her the ability to speak again.
In spite of the fact that music therapists have been having successes like these for decades, there are still only 6,000 music therapists in the United States. Andy and I co-founded Musical Health Technologies in order to more efficiently scale music as medicine.
What do you think SingFit does that hasn’t been touched on in the marketplace?
One of the things that is challenging for technologists is the notion that tech can solve everything. In so many areas of innovation, apps can ‘replace’ the existing method of doing things, but that’s not necessarily the case (or even the goal!) as we move into more nuanced or complicated areas. In healthcare, absolutely, there are going to be some things that can be picked up, self-administered and have some good effect; however, we first focused on creating tech that connects with both therapists and patients to create the very best result, and amplify their efforts.
A main goal of SingFit is allowing more kinds of healthcare professionals to have more kinds of tools at their disposal – if you’re an occupational therapist, now you have music or art therapy in your toolkit. It’s the tech driven by therapeutic goals, but supported by a healthcare professional, that can really take things to the next level.
Our main product, SingFit PRIME is sold into long-term care communities – It gives professionals a wider set of tools to face the challenges of therapy, while also creating a more immersive and effective therapy experience for patients.
In short we’re a) giving practitioner’s more tools, and b) making it easier for individuals to receive and track the therapy they require.
How else does the app encourage seniors through digital and play? Are there plans to expand this to new markets beyond seniors?
Right now, we have a rudimentary level of personal tracking, where we capture the data that shows the patient how much they’ve sung in a week – this helps keep patients motivated to continue besting their records, and I do see us expanding that further, especially as we move into new audiences. The results thus far have been so positive that we're moving beyond dementia/Alzheimer's, and we have products coming out for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for instance, and pregnancy, that will encourage positive behaviors.
A beautiful byproduct of SingFit is the social effect it's having in assisted living communities. In a world where social isolation is one of the main issues affecting the quality of life of the elderly, it's amazing that this app can have a spinoff effect that is tackling such an important challenge.
And beyond this? Well, to get a bit scientific for a moment: on the neurochemical tip, singing releases oxytocin, which we all produce, but there are only a few things that actually generate it: pregnancy, petting an animal, sex, and singing. It's a chemical that literally bonds you to the things; the people around you – of course, there are so many areas where this fact can be employed beyond our current application. Let’s not even mention what brands would be able to do by harnessing this science to create these kinds of positive feelings with their brands...
Ok, we're definitely including singing in our next pitch. So, what are some of the remaining challenges to spreading the word on SingFit? What will help take it to the ‘next level’?
We're expanding our B2B work with companies and organizations to get the technology into more hands: insurance companies, technology partners – and ultimately, create a better through-line right to patients. We want to get it to caregivers and users right in their homes, on the front lines for people receiving treatment.
Another great way that the app has legs beyond its core use is its sharing functionality. Essentially, the app records the patient singing, removes the audio vocal prompts, and mixes the recording and the backing track into an MP3 that can be shared out. The result has been a huge desire for seniors to share these songs with their grandkids. It's really serving to increase grandparent/grandchild connections.
What we thought was going to be all about brain health, ended up being much more socially motivated - more than the therapeutic benefits, they just wanted their grandkids to think they’re cool.
In terms of upcoming events, we've got an event on April 27th at the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, California, focusing on innovation in caregiving across the entire startup community.
Any closing thoughts on the power of music?
You know, indigenous Australians – they believed that you sing the world into existence. There’s evidence that music has been around before speech. It’s been part of culture since the beginning of recorded time. If you wanted music, you had to MAKE the music – it was a huge part of daily life, NOW we leave it up to the professionals to do it. It’s like ‘processed food’ of music – we’ve taken the personal nutrition out of it, and leave it up to companies to provide us with it. Our goal is to make active music making in a prescribed fashion more accessible to everyone.