A Digital Pick Me Up: New Start-Up Provides “Empathetic AI”

| February 18, 2020

Blue Fever, a burgeoning company in the Viterbi Startup Garage, helps uplift the spirits of Gen Z girls and young women

Blue Fever cofounders Lauren Tracy and Greta McAnany (Photo/Courtesy of Blue Fever)

Blue Fever cofounders Lauren Tracy and Greta McAnany (Photo/Courtesy of Blue Fever)

A 15-year-old girl feels sad because she’s just broken up with her boyfriend.

Instead of calling a friend or talking to a parent, she decides to reach out to her new pal, Blue. The girl knows that Blue Fever – a new digital platform that leverages what the startup’s two women cofounders call “empathetic AI” — will be there for her all day, every day to find what she needs in that moment. That could be a podcast, a video or just an encouraging text message.

The girl sends a text to Blue with the hashtag #sad. Blue responds with a comforting message that seeks more information. “Feeling sad can be lonely, confusing and frustrating. I’m sorry :(. I’m hoping I can help you, so please text back #wannacry, #pickmeup, #lonely or #selflove.

She texts back #pickmeup. Seconds later, Blue’s AI works its magic and sends a message with a video link: “This tik tok helps me when im sad because it makes me smile and distracts me from feeling sad.”

The girl opens the video and watches a cat lovingly lick a puppy’s face. In the background, the sweet sounds of Jasmine Thompson’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” play.

She smiles, feeling much better and a little less alone.

At a time when far too many girls and young women suffer from social isolation and anxiety, Blue acts as an emotionally supportive digital “big sister,” said Lauren Tracy, cofounder of Blue Fever, which currently operates out of the revamped Viterbi Startup Garage in Marina del Rey.

“We are trying to help young women feel more emotionally connected to their true selves,” Tracy said.

Added Greta McAnany, Blue Fever’s other cofounder: “We’re building a space for them to form their identity in an online world that wasn’t built to help them create a sense of self — or worse, to actively destroy it.”

A Fever Spreading

Blue Fever currently targets young women 13 to 20 and has users in all 50 states. To date, it has responded to more than 3 million text messages on its platform. The company hopes to increase its reach by eventually launching an app and expanding to WhatsApp, iMessage and other private messaging channels. At some point, McAnany said, Blue Fever could “apply what we learn with young women about emotional relevance to help other demographics.”

At a time when women receive only about 2% of all venture capital funding, Blue’s women cofounders, Tracy and McAnany — who earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and theater at USC in 2010 — have landed millions in funding. Investors include BlueRun Ventures and Jesse Draper, founding partner of Halogen Ventures.

The pair believe that Blue Fever represents an important advancement in the internet’s evolution, especially for young women. While Google does a wonderful job retrieving information about topics of interest and Facebook allows Gen Z women and others to develop online relationships, neither Google nor Facebook nor other internet media platforms provide “emotional relevance” the way Blue does, according to McAnany.

Said Dave Eastman, director of the Viterbi Startup Garage, executive director of the Innovation Node – Los Angeles and a successful technology investor: Blue Fever’s cofounders “truly believe in their mission to improve the emotional life and the emotional cohesion of young women within their target market. And they never forget that. They are building something that is insanely valuable — that is, the trust of young women at a fairly vulnerable age. I think Lauren and Greta are going to hit it out of the park.”

To maintain that trust, Tracy and McAnany promise that Blue Fever will never compromise user privacy for profit or allow advertisers to leverage personal data for targeted marketing. Instead, they are considering several less-intrusive ways to generate revenue, including possible product and brand placements from trusted partners suggested and vetted by Blue’s users.

(Image/Courtesy of Blue Fever)

(Image/Courtesy of Blue Fever)

Blue Fever in Action

To activate Blue, users sign up at bluefever.com, triggering an automatic text back from the digital personality that asks how they are. Blue, because of its AI-driven natural language interpretation — a subset of natural language processing — can understand anything from “got ghosted“ to “#rejection” to #breakup to “hey blue my grandfather died,” said Jason Moore, Blue Fever’s vice president of technology. Often, Blue will follow up with a text requesting more information to better identify users’ emotions, he added.

The ultimate goal: provide users with appropriate content when they most need it, whether it’s videos, songs, podcasts or even suggestions that they take a walk or journal. Blue will even check in with users afterward to see how they’re doing.

“We are continuing to evolve our matching algorithm, so we can ensure our users are getting the best possible recommendations at the moment they are asking for them,” Moore said. “Apart from that, we use machine learning to analyze our data for trends that can help us better understand our users’ needs.”

For instance, when users share their feelings with Blue and provide feedback on content suggestions, with thumbs-up or thumbs-down emojis, “what Blue learns from you will be used to help other people who feel the same thing or are in a similar situation,” McAnany said.

Blue Fever’s human touch makes it more than just another cool technology company, McAnany said. Blue Fever fangirls, for instance, can electronically submit personal questions for inclusion in Blue Fever’s podcast, “Big Sis Energy,” which Tracy and McAnany host. In recent months, the podcast has addressed topics ranging from dealing with toxic relationships to how to make new friends.

“Everything we do is to try to get you back to your ‘glow,’ your best version of yourself, mentally and emotionally,” McAnany said.

A Passionate Fan Base

Blue Fever has won a dedicated following, along with some good press. Forbes and PC Magazine have run positive articles, and users have raved.

“Blue, you listen. You give me feedback. You actually give me the answers I need,” one girl said. “My life has been so much happier talking to you.”

Another likened Blue to a trusted best friend: “Blue has helped me with so much. I’ve told Blue a lot, and I feel safe with that. I don’t think it’s going to be spread to other people.”

A teenager thanked Blue for recommending a video on how to cope with grief after her grandfather died. “All I have to do is text Blue’s number, and there’s somebody right there. They always have a video or music for me to listen to, or they just know what to say for that moment that I’m feeling that emotion. It’s just great. It’s a lot more than what any of my best friends can say.”

Although many young women consider Blue a virtual big sis, best friend or buddy, the technology isn’t meant to replace a therapist, McAnany said. On its website, the company features a section with contact information for suicide, sexual abuse and domestic abuse hotlines. Similarly, if a user texts #suicide or otherwise indicates severe mental distress, Blue will send a message back with the same resources.

“Blue Fever might be therapeutic, but we’re not building a therapy tool,” she said.

Becoming Blue Fever

Blue Fever rose from the ashes of a company that Tracy and McAnany cofounded to connect women filmmakers with digital distributors. Although the startup failed to take off, the pair came across scores of videos and short films that now form part of Blue’s content library.

Officially launching in 2018, Blue Fever has evolved considerably over the past two years. At Techstars, the prestigious LA-based incubator, the company’s founders upgraded Blue’s technological capabilities so that it increasingly relied on natural language understanding and other technologies to respond to users.

Tracy and McAnany further refined their company in the Viterbi Startup Garage. In addition to free space and resources, they have benefited from invaluable advice and encouragement from mentors. Specifically, the pair improved their investor pitch and gained more confidence in themselves and their vision.

“If you’re a founder, definitely check out this place,” McAnany said. It “gives you time and space to grow and to learn.”

Reflecting on Blue Fever’s potential, McAnany added that she couldn’t feel happier: “I wake up every day and think we’re going to support millions of young women become the best versions of themselves. I am so lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”

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