AgeTech Collaborative™ startup participant Flowly is on a mission to help people live a life unlimited by chronic pain. Centered around biofeedback and an immersive VR experience, Flowly teaches people how to take back control of their own nervous systems and, in turn, modulate chronic pain — all without medication.
We spent time talking with Celine Tien, founder and CEO of Flowly, to learn more about this innovative solution.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Would you introduce us to Flowly?
Flowly is a mobile app that combines virtual reality with biofeedback training to help people with chronic pain learn how to manage their nervous system. And as you can imagine, a lot of the people we serve are 50-plus; we call them our “heroes.”
Flowly’s focus is on reducing chronic pain, specifically. Can you tell us more about that?
Chronic pain is any type of pain that you experience that is sustained over three to nine months or more. We’ve worked with people experiencing chronic pain across a spectrum, from chronic back pain and nerve pain to fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome. The reason why Flowly works across that spectrum is because at the core of what we do is your real-time heart rate.
Flowly shows you your heart rate in VR and teaches you how to control it. This allows you to downshift your nervous system, on command, from that fight-or-flight mode, where pain signals are created and amplified, into your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your rest, digest and relaxation mode.
Flowly is a mobile app, and it’s also VR. How do those work together?
When you sign up, we send you a kit that includes a VR headset and a real-time heart rate sensor — the kind you slip onto your finger or clip onto your ear. The headset is extremely lightweight, and you slip your smartphone into it. It’s very easy; most of our heroes do their sessions in bed or on the couch.
Sessions last from five to 20 minutes. You slip on the headset and the monitor, then choose which immersive environment you want to be transported to — such as sitting on a beach or wandering through a bamboo forest. So it’s inherently relaxing. But at the same time, you see your heart rate, and we teach you to do breathwork to adjust your heart rate so you can shift your nervous system into that parasympathetic rest, digest and relaxation mode.
What's the learning curve in terms of being able to actually manipulate your heart rate like that?
In our studies, we’ve found that people immediately experience relaxation and, in some cases, reduced pain and less anxiety. Then, we start to see strong efficacy around the three- to four-week mark. We recommend people create a daily ritual around using Flowly, at least two or three times a week. With consistent usage, in our clinical trials we saw an average 40% voluntary reduction in opioid use with chronic back pain patients.
Once someone does a session, does their pain remain reduced for some period of time after the session?
In our case studies, we saw the pain reduction was anywhere from three to 72 hours after the session. The core of Flowly is using biofeedback to train yourself how to use your own internal resources to control your nervous system: It’s a long-term skill you can take with you outside of Flowly. With consistent usage, people find that their breathing and how they function changes dramatically after a couple of months of use.
It sounds a lot like meditation practice.
That’s a great analogy. But for people with chronic pain, meditation can be really tough because you’re asking them to close their eyes and focus in on their body, which is where the pain is. The beauty of VR is that it’s very immersive, and you’re transported to another, relaxing environment they can concentrate on.
What inspired you to start Flowly to begin with?
I grew up around cancer, which is a very painful, anxiety-ridden experience, especially in the terminal stages. So pain management is something that has always been top of mind for me.
Later in life, I did VR development work at DreamWorks and fell in love with the technology; there’s such power and beauty behind it. I discovered that the technology had been applied for pain management even since the 1980s. So for me, it was a no-brainer — it’s the intersection of technology and art, applied in a meaningful way to something I was already very connected to.
As a startup, what kind of obstacles have you encountered along the way?
The biggest challenge we’ve had is educating people about VR and biofeedback, because these are not things that are in most people's everyday vernacular — especially the chronic pain warriors we serve. So the initial onboarding and showing people how to use Flowly is the challenging part. But once people adopt it, even older folks, they’re some of the strongest tech users that I’ve seen.
Interested in learning more about Flowly? Check out their website.