Aaron Labbé of LUCID: “You need to talk to your customers ”

At LUCID, we’re creating new forms of digital wellness products that aim to deliver music as a therapeutic. Using novel machine learning and audio engineering techniques, we curate, create and enhance music to produce measurable impacts on cognition. Our mission is to help people relieve stress and anxiety, sleep better and be more productive through […]

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At LUCID, we’re creating new forms of digital wellness products that aim to deliver music as a therapeutic. Using novel machine learning and audio engineering techniques, we curate, create and enhance music to produce measurable impacts on cognition. Our mission is to help people relieve stress and anxiety, sleep better and be more productive through the power of music.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Labbé.

Aaron Labbé is the co-founder and CTO of LUCID, and a Canada Council award-winning artist with a background in psychoacoustics research & audio engineering. LUCID is creating digital music therapeutics for mental wellness, and was named 2019 Best Startup by Wallifornia MusicTech & NEXT Canada’s NextAI Top Startup. LUCID’s mobile app VIBE provides personalized musical interventions, using machine learning algorithms to respond to and improve the user’s mental state.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My story begins with modest means and big ambitions. I grew up in Welland, Ontario, a suburban wasteland with people struck with financial hardship, drug addiction and the various other socio-economic byproducts that come naturally to the low-income communities. It’s a bubble that, for some, can be extremely difficult to break through.

A lifelong tinkerer, even in childhood, I found myself trying to problem solve my way through the challenges that surrounded me. I was fascinated with the universe in the sky and the universe of neurons between our ears. I dreamt of shaking the status quo. At age 13, I found my love for music and the arts, and I immersed myself in the craft. At age 17, I got into a specialized university program that fused music with engineering.

In my second year of university, I had a devastating nervous breakdown that ultimately exposed underlying mental health challenges that had been developing over the years. The months that followed brought a series of traumas including 2 misdiagnoses, forced hospitalizations, suicide attempts and a forced withdrawal from school. The months turned into a year and I found myself broke, alone and nearly homeless. I eventually threw in the towel, moved back to Welland and began the healing process.

I continued to reflect on my experience, identifying the various shortcomings of the mental health system and a burning urge grew to do something about it. It was there, in my room at my dad’s house, defeated and frustrated that I finally rallied and came up with the early concepts that fill the minds of the passionate innovators at LUCID today. After 2 years of healing, I returned to school on a mission to use art and technology to disrupt our approach to mental health, in my final year at Ryerson I did a thesis project that laid the groundwork for the company I co-founded in 2017 at the Ryerson Transmedia Zone Incubator, LUCID.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At LUCID, we’re creating new forms of digital wellness products that aim to deliver music as a therapeutic. Using novel machine learning and audio engineering techniques, we curate, create and enhance music to produce measurable impacts on cognition. Our mission is to help people relieve stress and anxiety, sleep better and be more productive through the power of music.

It is our collective dream to provide an empathetic alternative to people who are so often presented with a bucket of pills as standard of care. The mental health system is broken, and we intend to be one of the many driving forces fixing it.

We released our first mobile app VIBE, which delivers this solution with the ubiquity and flexibility of smart phone technology. This allows us to keep the intervention at a low cost and within reach, unlike many other holistic alternatives. And unlike many of our competitors in the wellness space, we are focused and determined to provide a product that is grounded in science.

The technology behind VIBE is currently in clinical trials for the treatment of moderate to severe acute anxiety. Positive results on this study would validate what we have heard anecdotally, that VIBE is not only helping users manage their mental wellbeing, but that it has measurable impacts on medically diagnosable mental health challenges. From here we plan to continue the work and eventually tackle various indications in the mental health space, and beyond.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh yes, the endless list of ridiculous experiences you go through as a young founder. In the beginning, there was a series of significant and funny failures, starting with my inability to pitch. Honestly, I’m a huge nerd and my claim to fame at the time was creative engineering and music, but I had zero clue about business. This was all learned over the years of getting literally laughed at, snored at and even blatantly insulted in front of a group of other founders. Despite this, I was relentless.

One of my fondest memories of the early days was pitching to a room of really smart people with my first co-founder, Zoë, that we would be selling a large structure that provides light and music therapy to hospitals. It turned out to make for an epic art installation, but we hadn’t learned much about the economies of scale at that point, and didn’t realize how ridiculously hard that would be. However, we really thought we had something special. Luckily, it turns out we did, but we needed a little re-framing on the business side (we have our co-founder, Zach, to thank for that).

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Such a great and important question. I think it’s a grounding reminder that we are nothing without those who support us. In my case, my father was a huge light while I was healing. He provided me help without judgement, and often times a roof over my head when things were at their worst. My sister, mother and step father were also crucial supports.

Aside from them, I would say my thesis advisor and professors at Ryerson University. There, I was graced with such passionate educators and incredibly talented artists, designers and engineers to learn from. The entire New Media community was a synergistic playground of pure creativity, each idea more wild than the last. We had a makerSpace that served as both a community hub and a space to build great things.

I remember being 2 months away from my thesis exhibition, when our program director, 2 faculty members and my thesis advisor were crowded in the makerSpace woodshop. We were staring at an un-finished panel of what would eventually become the LUCID dome; an immersive geodesic dome of glowing lights, and computational system that would read EEG signals and choose the right music to play for people. They stayed and talked me through what would have otherwise spun into a complete meltdown. With 8 weeks left, they helped me rally and finish my outrageously ambitious thesis project.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Just like anything else, there are positive and negative examples of disruption. I don’t think it’s a clear line either. Anytime major change is happening, there will be positive and negative ramifications, and I think it’s all about weighing out the greater outcome. But any tectonic shift will break a few things along the way. One of the more negative examples is the disruption of the food industry in the 50s. You had families eating less whole ingredients and more processed foods, but also freed up surplus amounts of time which led to some positive outcomes. Even on the more positive end, automating elements of manufacturing for a more green production process still has the negative outcome of thousands of blue collar jobs lost. In any instance when we disrupt, something is going to fall apart. We just need to be as socially responsible as possible through the process.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t go to grad school, be an entrepreneur. This one is my absolute favorite. One of my mentors and professors at Ryerson advised me that I should take a shot at making my thesis project work as a startup, before I brought the research into academia. Funny thing is that she was a devout academic, a multi-master’s degree and PhD holder, and one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. But despite all that, she saw the commercial potential of what LUCID could become, and gave me that great piece of advice. I was very close to applying to grad school, which would have completely changed the trajectectory of my future, and it’s unlikely that LUCID, Inc. would have ever happened.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of free. This is one that I’ve heard multiple times over the years, but the first time was from a mentor at Ryerson’s Transmedia Zone Incubator. This wise advice drove me to doing free exhibitions, free demos and simple proof of concepts to gain that crucial early traction. In our early days as a public installation, we were stern on not charging for experiences — which resulted in thousands of users, helping us refine our experience, get great data and learn faster.
  3. You need to talk to your customers — another staple, that I think is really worth mentioning. I remember one of the coaches in Ryerson’s iBoost program (a program for rapid user-centric design and market research development), whom passionately stared into my eyes and yelled “you need to talk to your customers! otherwise you are building for yourself!”. He, of course, was absolutely right. Your customers are your lifeblood, and it’s of upmost importance that they are happy.

I am proud to say that even to this day, LUCID is a human-centredcentered design company, and we continue to talk to our users. Our users not only show us what we need to do better, but they provide us with heart-warming stories to keep us going. One of our users from Texas told us that she uses our app every night before bed; and that before VIBE, she was unable to sleep at all due to PTSD.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

This is one that I learned from years of watching my father absolutely crush it (in a good way) at the professional relationships in his life. He continues to run a national organization of karate dojos. It’s a non-profit company providing a great service to the communities they serve, but it comes with the challenges of any business, nonetheless.

One of the things he taught me was that relationships are everything in business. By being delightful to work with, and being visibly competent at what you do, your name will flow through the network and people will happily share theirs with you. I got to exercise these muscles first when I worked in the film industry as a sound designer and production manager. By doing excellent work, being great to work with and diplomatic, people are happy to share their networks with you.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have a deep preoccupation with disrupting our social frameworks (like mental health, for instance), and I really enjoying doing that through art, music, and technology. Whatever I do, I’d like to strive towards creating a world where we feel better and treat each other better. I think creating groundbreaking solutions and experiences is the way to go. I’m definitely fully immersed in LUCID right now, but I have a few things up my sleeve.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

A talk that was groundbreaking for me, was from one of the artistic directors at Design I/O, an incredible design firm out of Boston. They had this amazing piece called Connected Worlds that created a massive projected environment of wild creatures, rivers, trees and islands that interacted with visitors in the space. Children would run through the massive hall and play with the projected fish, redirect water streams, create piles of sand and explore creatively throughout the oasis of living creatures. The technical implementation was intense; with dozens of large-scale projectors, 6 Mac Pros, dozens of motion sensors, a massive hall, a construction crew, and a massive team of programmers and engineers. The most amazing thing was — it was all for art’s sake. Millions of dollars in development, that was all about creating a rich, multi-sensory experience for the user. This firm designed without compromise, and I found this incredibly inspiring.

Cleo, the artistic director, told us that nothing is worth sacrificing the user experience, and he was absolutely right. Companies, designers and engineers who don’t obsess over the user experience rarely build products or experiences that people remember. Cleo designed something with his team that people remembered for the rest of their lives. I decided at that point, that I would aim to do the exact same thing with everything that I created.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Hands down, my favorite is “Fake it until you make it”. This is such an important life lesson, even though it’s kind of a cliché. I find the people who do best in life, don’t have any clue of what they’re doing at first, but are bold enough to go after it anyway. If you chase after an ambition after you’ve had enough time to perfect it, someone likely beat you to it already, because the world is filled with bold innovators who punch way above their weight.

For example, when I started the LUCID project, I had no clue what machine learning was. I didn’t have a day of classical training, and I certainly never tried to learn how to understand it. I learned it because LUCID needed me to, and 4+ years later I am the CTO of an applied machine learning company. Sure — the audio engineering and music cognition side of my expertise is crucial — but I still have to manage a team of ML engineers and design ML architectures. If I waited until I had a machine learning degree, LUCID would’ve never happened. With enough hard work and grit, anything is possible, but sometimes you need to ‘fake it until you make it’.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think there are so many incredible movements right now that are of the upmost importance, so I would first support many of those.

But after that, I’ve always wanted to start a movement of global live music collaboration. People are brought together by music, and some of the most amazing political movements went hand in hand with live music events. It could be small events or large festivals, but it would force unlikely relationships for the benefit of evoking peace — musicians from conflicting nations on the same stage performing harmoniously. Live music is also very therapeutic and often brings a sense of communal bonding. This would have to be a post-COVID for sure, but it would be epic.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have a website (aaronlabbe.com) where people can feel free to drop me a line. Otherwise, you can follow my work through LUCID’s Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us

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