She started TAO Connect in January. This summer, she recruited Stephanie George away from the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research to serve as CEO — and TAO, which stands for Therapy Assisted Online, licensed the technology from UF.
On Oct. 6, a panel of entrepreneurs and investors selected the young company over 15 other promising startups as winner of the fourth annual Gainesville Area Innovation Network Investor Pitch Shootout.
That bodes well for a company in the process of trying to raise funds. The three previous winners — eTect, Feathr and Paracosm — all have secured venture capital investments.
"It was a combination of the pitch — (George) hit the marks that the judges wanted to be able to see — and it was in a market and a technology space where the judges could say, 'Yeah, look at the whole package. This is something I would have the highest probability of putting money in because it has the highest probability of success,' " said Sven Hanson, a patent attorney who served as a judge for the competition.
From TAO's office in the UF Innovation Hub, George said the award brought mixed emotions. For one, it was great validation, but also came with the realization that they have a lot of work to do. Once they secure funds, they have plans for software development, marketing and sales, and creating a depression-treatment program.
George said their initial customers are university and college counseling centers that are federally mandated to provide counseling. They also have had interest from private practices and a state health department.
The technology got a head start within UF's counseling center, with Benton writing materials, the e-learning lab in UF's College of Education producing content, and counselors and clients providing feedback to make it better.
Benton said they were looking for a way to provide better care to more students. With 32 counselors for 50,000 students, the counseling center had a waiting list.
The program includes a series of "edutainment" videos that patients can complete online to understand and recognize their triggers for anxiety, and learn different ways to respond. Patients videoconference with their counselors each week, and receive homework assignments and reminders by smartphone.
Benton said results from last year showed the program doubled changes in symptoms compared to traditional face-to-face therapy.
"Now I think that's not because the treatment materials [by themselves] are magic," Benton said. "I think it's because what we do dramatically [increases] the students' engagement in the treatment, so it's not just one hour a week while they're in therapy. It's throughout the week doing parts of the modules on different days, doing homework that they can do on a mobile device throughout the week, knowing that their counselor can actually see what they did that week."
UF's Office of Technology Licensing was interested in commercializing TAO, and Benton decided rather than license it to somebody else, she would do it herself. After 6½ years as director of the counseling center, which followed a 20-year career at Kansas State, she took a half-time faculty position to devote more time to the company.
She said she never imagined being an entrepreneur, but has long been committed to trying to do something about mental health disparities. She was encouraged when other universities showed interest in TAO at conferences.
"They were like, 'Oh my gosh, we need that. How can we get that?' And it was kind of like, you know, the need is pretty overwhelming. This probably needs to happen," she said.
Benton first approached George through the Florida Institute this spring to talk about funding options. They kept talking, and George's interest grew.
George had 15 years of experience in information technology, followed by work in the startup world helping develop business plans and managing funds for the Emergent Growth Fund and the Florida Institute.
She said she also has had a great layman's interest in neuroscience.
"To me it's just absolutely phenomenal the power that our brains have of changing themselves and changing our world," she said. "The brain is the next frontier in science."