On a hot summer day by the beach in San Diego, Shannon Brownlee sits with two laptop screens—one playing an online lecture recording, and one showing a Zoom meeting of Microsoft interns.
It’s the summer before sophomore year, and Brownlee is juggling four different projects. As a computer science major, she is working on applications for the Windows operating system as an intern at Microsoft, researching aquatic microbiology in the Catalina Maymester, and building her tech startup to help detect emotions from speech patterns and vibrations—all while taking additional summer courses at USC.
Brownlee, now a graduating senior, has always kept busy. She spent her first year at USC exploring her various interests. In addition to studying computer science, she has a passion for integrating tech into biology and the arts.
“I’ve always really loved marine life—I grew up snorkeling and surfing and going to the beach a lot,” said Brownlee. “So, it was nice to be able to factor that into my research while doing something that was more computer science-based. It was my kind of skew on biology research.”
She was also involved in Corpus Callosum, USC’s premiere arts and tech organization, in conjunction with the Ahmanson Polymathic Lab, where she developed projects for every end-of-semester showcase since her freshman fall semester. Her projects ranged from virtual reality therapy to combining engineering and fashion.
Opening new doors
Unfortunately, her first year on campus at USC was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this period of social distancing and remote online learning would open new doors for Brownlee.
During the summer of 2020, Chloe Duckworth, a friend from her McCarthy Honors Residential College, reached out with an opportunity to enter an innovation challenge by Neosensory, a startup that maps auditory senses into vibrational patterns on a wristband to help deaf or hard-of-hearing people interpret the sounds around them.
Together, they wanted to integrate emotional AI to help neurodivergent people better identify and navigate human emotions. Brownlee and Duckworth’s application would translate vocal pitch patterns into vibrational patterns on a wristband. This live translation of vocals to vibrations would help neurodivergent people detect other people’s emotions more easily—rather than being overwhelmed by vocal pitch, context, expressions, and body movements.
“It was something that we felt had more of a possibility to make an impact in,” Brownlee said.
The two co-founders didn’t intend this developer challenge to be the start of a company. But after they placed as one of the five first-round winners and placed third overall in the second round of the challenge, many people started reaching out.
“We had conducted user interviews to determine if our application would be useful,” said Brownlee. “After the competition, some of these users and other developers encouraged us to keep working on it. They believed it would be a very useful tool for neurodivergent people.”
From there, Valence Vibrations was born.
The duo’s first step was entering USC competitions and accelerators. They won first place and $1000 from SparkSC’s 1000 Pitches competition and third place in the 2020-2021 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) at USC. Such entrepreneurship opportunities at USC helped Valence Vibrations secure grants, find mentors, and earn legal funding. This past semester, the two founders were involved with a USC Marshall investing MBA class.
After graduation, Brownlee and her co-founder intend to work full-time on Valence Vibrations while Brownlee also completes her master’s in electrical engineering at USC. Despite several sleepless nights and missed lunches with friends throughout college, Brownlee is proud of the work she’s done at her startup.
“The things I do with Valence Vibrations are not just about me,” said Brownlee. “It’s about actually helping people and seeing users talk about how much it’s changed their lives and helped them navigate relationships with their family and friends. It makes a world of difference to know I’m actually making an impact, no matter what.”
Currently, Valence Vibrations is working on expanding its availability and platforms for users, working on API licenses to help the software integrate with other companies and organizations’ systems such as MacOS applications and Zoom plugins.
In the long run, Brownlee hopes that Valence Vibrations can become a ubiquitous tool that anyone can use.
“We’re hoping to move into that space and just get emotion accessible everywhere,” said Brownlee. “We’re pretty confident with the way we do things.”
Brownlee said that the most important advice she would give to freshmen is to “take time to figure things out.” She recalls feeling rushed to be involved and accomplished as soon as she was introduced to the new college environment.
“Looking back, your early college years are all about learning how to manage time and weigh priorities,” said Brownlee. “Get involved but don’t get overwhelmed—slow down and figure out what you’re interested in.”
Published on May 10th, 2023
Last updated on May 10th, 2023