Yoga is among the most ancient practices in the world of holistic health and wellness. That’s why the innovation embodied in the Happ:y Mat (an adaptation of a traditional yoga mat for use in clinical therapy) is so impressive. The mat is a key part of Happ:y Wellness, a company co-founded by campus innovators Paul Mross and Dr. Paul Smith. Happ:y stands for Healthy Accessible Products and Programs: Yoga, and its co-founders began working closely together in 2012 while leading one of the first research studies in the US about the benefits of yoga for fall prevention. Dr. Paul Smith was a family physician for over 40 years and recently retired from UW-Madison after 24 years at the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. The development of the mat itself was led by Paul Mross, a registered yoga instructor through the Yoga Alliance who has also served as the project manager and yoga consultant for 4 research studies on Fall Prevention and Yoga with UW–Madison.
Happ:y’s unique mat has a matrix of images printed on the surface to guide hand and foot placement, creating a sort of “therapy twister” template that is used in a variety of settings. Mross initially invented the mat to aid his research with the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Noting a lack of understanding of basic yoga concepts by some of the students, Mross decided to print out feet and place them on the floor as foundational templates for where he wanted the students to be positioned. The tool worked, and the idea for the Happ:y Mat was born. Today, the mat anchors the offerings of Happ:y Wellness and is complemented by digital tools that facilitate communication between practitioners and patients. The overall goal is to make assessment and documentation of therapeutic progress easier, increase therapist efficiency, and increase patient and caregiver confidence for safely and accurately completing home therapy activities—especially important with the current emphasis on telehealth.
The team that came to be collectively known in the D2P offices as “the Pauls” attended D2P’s Igniter program in the fall of 2019 to work on the launch of Happ:y Wellness. “It has been a truly rewarding experience to work with the Pauls alongside my colleague Kieran Furlong,” says Cecily Brose, one of the mentors for the project. “The Happ:y team came into the Igniter class open and willing to use the discovery interview process to successful navigate several pivots and guide their business model creation. I’m excited to see where the journey takes these two talented entrepreneurs!”
We asked Paul Mross to share insights on the journey of launching the company and lessons learned along the way.
How has D2P helped you?
The D2P program was a huge catalyst in identifying our customer base. We were challenged in ways that spurred discovery and insight into who would buy our products. We initially thought our market would be yoga instructors and students. Within a 3-month period, we shifted our focus to the therapy community, specifically pediatric occupational therapists.
What other entrepreneurial resources/programs have provided guidance to you?
We felt confident enough and were prepared after graduating from D2P to enter the gBETA program. We completed the gBETA adventure this past summer (2020). We are also exploring using the resources of The Center for Technology Commercialization to apply for a STTR grant. Finally, we are working with BME students at UW-Madison on their senior capstone project to design a sensor Happy Mat.
What’s your current focus with the company, and how has the pandemic affected your operations?
We had to completely shift gears. We entered the gBETA program right as the pandemic started. We had one in-person gathering and then went to the virtual format. Our kickoff was supposed to be at a national conference in March, in front of thousands of occupational therapists. That conference was canceled and with that, we had to find new ways to introduce ourselves to the therapy community. Our initial assumption was that our products would be used in a clinical environment. With the pandemic, many clinics, hospitals, and therapists moved to telehealth. We did not initially consider telehealth as a value source; however, once we pivoted to marketing as a telehealth solution, we found traction. Finally, the pandemic has created a slog of responses from these therapy entities. What might have taken weeks is taking months: approvals for using our products, payments, response times.
What are your hopes for Happ:y Yoga moving forward?
We aspire to be the Peloton of therapy mats. Our goal is to improve and increase our product value with a video library and an app. By 2021, we plan to have a working sensor Happ:y Mat to enhance the use of our other products. These wrap-around services will support both the therapist and his/her patients.
What drives you/why is this project important to you personally?
My professional goals have always been to provide access to wellness for as many underserved communities as possible. I co-founded a nonprofit in Madison called YAFA (Yoga Accessible for ALL). My research addresses a huge gap (falls) in health and wellness for older adults and our Wisconsin rural communities. Happ:y Wellness was just a continuation of this journey. We founded the company on principles of access. We strive to give back in social and environmental ways. Happ:y Wellness is an extension of what I have been doing all my life: empowering people to find their well-being.
What advice would you give to other campus innovators that are just starting out with exploring the potential for their ideas?
Keep moving and breathe. Happ:y Wellness was started as a thought, 4 years ago. We became a company a little over 18 months ago. The idea that I had after working with the Deaf and hard of hearing community evolved in ways I never imagined. I have met so many amazing people willing to help. I just had to ask. Yes, doors were closed. However, remarkable things happen when you keep moving… unforeseen results appear, sometimes months or years later. Seeds I planted early in the company’s journey grew back. You never know who a partner will be, so always be kind. Finally, BREATHE. This may seem simple, but believe me, we do not do it enough when times are rough. Breathe strong when times are good and when times are challenging!
How do you balance the time you need to spend on your project with other work and life responsibilities?
Like I said earlier: you must remember to breathe. I find that I have to make time to enjoy life outside of Happ:y Wellness. I enjoy working on Happ:y Wellness projects. So, for me, I must pull myself away to appreciate other parts of my life (family, friends, nature, research). The thing about owning a company is that it is always there. I look at an ad and I am thinking marketing. I hear a story about therapy, and I think how my customers will be impacted. So for me, turning off Happ:y Wellness is a practice. I’m thinking of ideas for my business on walks and while driving. However, I have developed a little hack of emailing myself those ideas and then letting them go until I can act on them.
Campus is full of bright minds and amazing ideas, but many people do not self-identify with the term “entrepreneur.” Do you connect with that term, and why or why not? Is there another term you’d use to describe what you’re doing with your project?
From an early age (30+ years now) I have been self-employed. So, I am comfortable with working on my own and surviving as an “entrepreneur” does. I do not identify as an entrepreneur, because I do not think of it on a regular basis. It is just a label. I am just doing what I do, walking through life the way it unfolds in front of me.