An incoming Cal Poly freshman leaving home for the first time. A new parent bringing their newborn home from the hospital. A person coping with the loss of a loved one. These are the people Jonny White wants to help with an app he is developing.
White, founder of a startup called Trees, aims to help connect people who are facing major life transitions with the information they need to succeed. Trees works by using machine learning and psychometrics to curate the most helpful resources from the internet for any given individual.
New users will start by filling out a questionnaire that assesses personality, habits, demographics, location, major, etc. Based on the answers, the app will then lead them straight to resources that are most likely to help them, some of which contain original content and others that have been pulled from carefully vetted online sources.
Resources provided to users based on their specific needs may include action plans with steps to better manage their sleep or calendars, video content from the web, useful books to read, or articles written by people they can relate to. The development of the app began two years ago, and it is currently preparing for a launch in Cal Poly’s CIE Hothouse.
White, who has a background in psychology and teaching, knows that all individuals operate differently and therefore have different needs. For that reason, he is passionate about getting the right help for the right person, in addition to tracking the success of that help so it can help someone else in the future.
"It's a shame we're not better at tracking what works for whom," White said. Trees will be able to track which resources have been most helpful to users, as well as track which users found them helpful.
After the preliminary assessment and recommendation each user can report whether the help worked for them. The more people use the app, the better it will become at providing the most helpful resources to each individual.
If the app determines an individual is someone who needs to get better sleep, for instance, it might recommend a series of steps on how to do so. It might also show the individual a video of Elon Musk talking about why you shouldn’t eat before bed.
“If you seem like somebody who might respond well to that according to the machine learning backend, then we might give you Elon Musk,” White said. “To certain people, he’s persuasive. So we’re just sourcing the best of the web.”
White is fascinated with trying to solve this "what works, for whom" riddle. Whether it be a first-time college student, a new mom, or a person who simply wants to live healthier, his app is intended to find and provide users the best help, digital content, and constructive resources to be successful in new situations.
The intention of the app is to make life easier on individuals by providing guidance to them through a challenging time.
"It's not that I want to tell people what to do," White said. "It's more so that I feel when you are able to get some of the junk out of the way, you have more time left to be yourself. You're not so bogged down just trying to survive."
A key way in which Trees will be able to profit and grow is by helping universities raise their overall retention rates, which is a top criteria that university administrators are evaluated on. The average retention rate for universities in North America is 62%. So, about 38% don't graduate from the institutions where they start.
Trees can charge the universities for the app and monitor how closely it helps with retention. If it does help, they are ultimately bringing more revenue to the universities by making sure students return to the institution to finish their degree.
"It's a two-sided marketplace," he said. "We're solving an administrator problem by solving student problems."
White has been able to develop his vision and grow his young company since working through Cal Poly's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship HotHouse Incubator.
White praises Cal Poly for being a wonderful research partner, and shared that one of the most influential pieces of advice given to him was from Cal Poly materials engineering professor Trevor Harding: "Don't ask what the world needs, ask what switches you on. Because what the world needs is more people who are switched on."
"This potential for using our algorithm and psychometric measurements to get people stuff that actually connects with them and switches them on, that's exciting to me," White said. "I would hope the downstream effects of that would be a lot more people who are doing stuff that they care about and succeeding at it and thereby contributing to the world."
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