Innovation & Enterprise


UCL partners with startup Tend VR to help treat anxiety and depression

1 October 2020

UCL and Tend VR are collaborating to develop and test an immersive virtual reality (VR) therapy for treating anxiety and depression.

A quiet room, with a chair and cushions on the floor in front of a big window, through which you can see the sunrise

A feasibility study of the therapy is due to take place with The Retreat in York, a mental health and wellbeing provider, which has also partnered with Tend VR. The study will be followed by randomised controlled trials in patients which, if successful, will see the intervention used in clinical settings.

Innovative ideas for treating depression

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 250 million people. The cost of treating the illness stands at around £88 billion per year for the US and EU alone, with a mixed success record.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a face-to-face group therapy that has been proven to be a highly effective treatment. However, it’s difficult to scale up MBCT to help sufficient numbers of people and there are often high drop-out rates. Furthermore, the current COVID-19 restrictions mean we need effective alternatives to group therapies.

Startup Tend VR was founded in East London last year to develop innovative technologies to improve mental health and wellbeing. Their first goal is an at-home scalable VR course that delivers gold-standard MBCT treatment to patients across the globe. 

Academic rigour 

Early in their product development, Tend VR saw the benefit of bringing in rigorous academic research and reached out to UCL. The Business and Innovation Partnerships (BIP) team within UCL Innovation & Enterprise introduced them to Dr Rebecca Gould (Associate Professor & Honorary Clinical Psychologist in the Division of Psychiatry at UCL). 

Rebecca was actively exploring uses for VR, and seized the opportunity to put research into practice in this rapidly evolving field. She comments: 

"There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that mindfulness-based interventions can have a beneficial effect on depression and anxiety symptoms. However, the biggest challenge we face as clinicians is getting people to actually practice mindfulness during their daily life. Virtual reality-based mindfulness represents an innovative and novel approach to addressing this challenge, and I'm very excited to be working with Tend on this project."

A collaborative partnership

The BIP team explored the possibilities for Tend and UCL to work together, which resulted in the two parties signing a memorandum of understanding to develop and rigorously test an eight-week MBCT course.  

The course is delivered through a VR software and hardware platform that creates a gamified world that grows with the participant. 

To ensure the validity of the general approach, a feasibility study will be conducted with The Retreat. The Retreat has a reputation for excellence and over 200 years’ experience in pioneering holistic approaches to mental health. It’s also invested in this exciting new project and is keen to harness emerging technology to help others.

Matthew Hoad-Robson, founder and Managing Director of Tend, is an award-winning digital creative now working with immersive technologies. Matthew comments: 

“Mindfulness based cognitive therapy is one of the best available treatments for depression. Its effectiveness is supported by years of high-quality peer reviewed research and is a NICE-approved treatment. We’re very excited to work with UCL on finding new ways to deliver this vital treatment.” 

Emma Selby is co-founder and clinical lead at Tend. She’s an award-winning mental health nurse specialising in the use of technology as a tool to improve mental wellbeing. 

Emma comments: “Working with UCL we want to dramatically increase access to this therapy, reduce drop-out rates and improve on the overall efficacy through gamification, interactivity and immersion.”

The partnership will also allow second year undergraduate computer science students to work directly with Tend on a software engineering project as part of the UCL Industry Exchange Network (IXN). UCL IXN is a core element of UCL’s undergraduate Computer Science programme. Students work on genuine, real-time company projects facilitating exchange of knowledge.

Commenting on the partnership, Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise) at UCL, said: “This is a fantastic example of the SME community working alongside universities to devise solutions that will bring benefit to society and boost the economy, reflecting the strength of UCL engagement with such companies. The partnership comes at a particularly pertinent time, as mental health is an important concern for many of us during these challenging times. More than ever we need, innovative, flexible and potentially cost effective solutions.”


Find out more about:

Photo © Tend VR