Mira—2022 UP/Start Finalist

Mira, the venture of Jana Thompson ’21 (UX Design MPS), was one of seven finalists in this year's competition.

Imagine a virtual friend who pings you throughout the day to remind you to take care of yourself on those days when you’re so overwhelmed you forget to even drink water.  The first iteration of this friend exists, and their name is Mira. 

Mira was ideated by a team of five students in MICA’s MPS in UX Design program to meet a class challenge on creating an app to help a user’s wellbeing. Since the team wanted to focus on daily well-being, they began with a diary study that resonated with the research participants for the rhythm of the simple check-in on how they were doing. “When we brought it to the ideation phase of our project, we realized that the diary study itself was the heart of what we wanted to create,” explained Jana Thompson ’21.

Mira interacts with users via a custom avatar.  The avatar is unique in voice, appearance, and personality for each user, and is driven by adaptive AI models to tailor to each individual’s preferences.  Mira will check in with them throughout the day, offering encouragement to accomplish tasks and track progress, as well as look at user stress levels and well-being over time.  As many people often need an outside reminder to take care of themselves, Mira fills that gap as more than just a set of reminders, but by also offering compassion and encouragement for those stressed throughout the day.

The class project turned into a potential business venture thanks in part to encouragement from others, Thompson noted.

“After we finished and we talked to friends, they would say, ‘This is a really good idea. It’s fantastic.’ So, during the early weeks of our next class, our thesis class, we decided to pitch it to UP/Start. A good way to really find out if something is a good idea is to pitch it in front of people. And that’s what we’ve talked about throughout this process—do other people think it’s a good idea?”

After initially pitching the idea in UP/Start’s Pop Up & Pitch event, Mira was selected as a finalist in the 2022 UP/Start Venture Competition, an outcome that confirmed the value of their idea. The five team members—who are spread throughout the country, from Washington to Texas, and New York to Virginia—began dividing tasks as they worked toward the finale.

“We were really clear about what we could do. I’m team lead, and I did customer discovery and tasks like that. But everyone knew what they were capable of—they were upfront about how much time they could put in per week, who could do visuals, who could work on budget, or social media,” Thompson said. 

As part of the program, the team also worked with a mentor, Winston Frazer ’16 (Painting BFA), co-founder of Danae, Inc., a winner in the 2017 UP/Start competition. Among the advice given by Frazer was to continue validating the idea behind Mira by conducting customer discovery.

“Customer discovery is, I think, a close cousin of the user research process. In customer discovery, you’re getting data points because you’re asking very specific questions. It’s not like user research, where you do hours long, in-depth interviews. You’re asking five or six discrete questions to try to get a data point, particularly about revenue generation in this case.”

Thompson added, “By this time next year, we would like to have finished or be close to finishing a beta release testing process. Our goal is to have a minimum viable product out in two years—have an existing piece of software where people can interact. And we’re going to start really learning in the releases what works, what doesn’t work with people, what things work long term and what things just fall off.  So, a two-year learning phase with existing users and in five years have a richer feature set. And we need to see what trends develop. We're still mired in this mental health crisis due to the pandemic and the stress of it. Where are we going to be in five years? An app like Mira has to grow and adapt for the needs of society if it’s going to be successful.”