In February, 3C Institute celebrated its 20th anniversary. To reflect on the company’s impact over the past two decades, CEO and founder Dr. Melissa DeRosier sat down with one of our editors to discuss how 3C started, what it has accomplished, and where it is headed.
A: Before I started 3C, I was working on a five-year grant, known as the FIRST Award, from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). With the grant, I began working in schools all across the Wake County Public Schools System, and I was investigating my primary areas of interest, children’s social development and peer problems. I wanted to discover how we can help children adjust better to school, both academically and behaviorally. The grant got me into the community and into schools, and the schools asked me to develop an intervention to help kids who were teased, bullied, rejected, and left out—the kind of kids who were the focus of my research.
The result was Social Skills Group Intervention (S.S.GRIN), an evidence-based small group social skills training program. My work in the schools happened at a time when I was trying to figure out how to spend my career doing something that would impact children’s lives in a positive way. I didn’t see academia as the path for me to do that, so I decided to found 3C Institute.
Working out of my attic, I applied for three Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, all of which received funding and made it possible to build and later expand the company. My goal was to make sure my research would have a real-world impact.
A: Beginning around 2006, we started moving toward technology to increase the scalability and reach of our products. Our goal was to build a sustainable business that would be less reliant on grants. At first, we really focused on game-based social-emotional learning (SEL). At that time, people were skeptical about using technology for mental health, and for some, we were too innovative. We were ahead of the curve. But we kept working hard until we won grants to create multiple games, including Adventures Aboard the S.S.GRIN, Zoo U, and Hall of Heroes. Once the research and development was done, we partnered with Tim Huntley, CEO of Centervention, to take our products to market. To date, he’s brought our SEL games to hundreds of thousands of children across the world!
Games were our first real entrée into technology. But as we worked on them, the possibilities really opened up. I thought to myself: if we can use technology to produce effective games, how else can it help address mental health and improve care?
That’s where our Dynamic e-Learning Platform (DeLP) came from. DeLP started as a means to support professional development for mental health providers. And then it evolved over time to include more and more interactive elements, such as virtual simulations and personalized assessments, eventually becoming what it is now: an effective and versatile platform for both professional development and self-paced learning.
A: We’ve developed several original games with funding from the NIMH and the US Department of Education. Before ours, there were no evidence-based games for social-emotional development that worked. The games that did exist had several problems. They underestimated kids’ intelligence. They spoke down to kids. Their game play was boring because kids clearly knew how to answer the questions correctly. Because of these problems, kids didn’t like those games and didn’t play them. The games just weren’t effective.
Adventures Aboard the S.S.GRIN and Zoo U are truly the first games proven to be effective intelligent social tutoring systems. When I say intelligent, I mean that, as part of our game engine, we dynamically adjust game play based on player choices in order to challenge but not frustrate kids and to provide meaningful pedagogical assistance. The result is personalized play. That level of individualization didn’t exist until our SEL games came to market.
Another driver for creating game-based SEL was equity. People who get good mental health services tend to be those who can afford them, people who already have the resources and time for these services. There has always been—and there still is—a large gap in equity. Too often kids who need and would benefit from SEL don’t get it, and sometimes the ones who would benefit the most are the least likely to get it. I see games and technology-driven products more generally as ways to help overcome some of these financial and practical barriers.
Most importantly, our games actually help kids. That distinction sets us apart from nearly every other competitor.
A: In 2016, we really started to focus on how technology could be used to support other groups doing similar kinds of behavioral health work, not just our own. If we try to fulfill our mission of broadly improving health and well-being just by ourselves, we really limit our reach. Instead, we’ve found ways to expand our reach. We have effectively leveraged the technological infrastructure and features that we built and tested through SBIR grants to create a wide range of custom technologies for developers, researchers, and nonprofits across the country and beyond. Now our work seeks not only to improve the quality and implementation of our own programs but also to assist others like us as they do their good work. By helping others, we can better fulfill our own mission to improve health and well-being across the world.
A: I know of no other company like us. We provide fantastic services, and we do so in a way that no other software company can compete with. The fact that our developers, editors, and artists—everybody in the company—can speak the language of behavioral health is vastly helpful when working with our partners. All of our clients fall under the umbrella of social-emotional and behavioral health. Because we speak the same language, we can talk to each other and move forward in a much more efficient, effective way.
If I couldn’t speak this language, or if my developers didn’t understand why programs need to be evidence-based, for example, we wouldn’t be nearly as good a partner for all of our clients who are doing such essential work.
A: If anything, the pandemic has validated our business model. Effective online learning is here to stay. I said there used to be skepticism about games, but there’s still skepticism about online learning more generally. For schools in particular, the pandemic has served as a forcing function. Suddenly people had to do remote learning. They had to look for online options to support their students. They had no other choice. Now that they’ve had these experiences, they’ve seen that online learning is viable. There’s going to be more of an appetite for the kinds of technology-based behavioral health products that we provide, even after life returns to normal.
Dr. DeRosier founded 3C Institute in 2001. Dr. DeRosier serves as director of the Institute, managing 45 professional research, clinical, and technology staff. In an effort to advance 3C Institute’s mission of integrating research and practice within real-life service settings, Dr. DeRosier founded 3-C Family Services (3-C FS) in 2003, an outpatient mental health practice with 15 multidisciplinary clinicians providing the full range of psychiatric and psychological services. Dr. DeRosier serves as executive director of 3-C FS. The collaboration between 3C Institute and 3-C FS creates a synergy where real-world practice informs and is informed by research.
Dr. DeRosier is a clinical psychologist whose research and clinical work has been dedicated to development of evidence-based social-emotional interventions for children and families. She has written extensively in this area, publishing dozens of journal articles and book chapters. She has also authored several rigorously researched intervention curricula which are currently used by schools and clinics with thousands of children across the United States and abroad. A particular focus of Dr. DeRosier’s work is understanding those elements that impact implementation of evidence-based programs in school and community mental health settings. This work has informed development of usability guidelines for curriculum development as well as innovative technologies to support quality implementation. Dr. DeRosier has been awarded multiple NIH-funded grants to develop and test 3C Institute’s web-based implementation support tools.
For the past 15 years, Dr. DeRosier has worked with school systems across the country to develop, test, and implement evidence-based programs for children’s social-emotional health. She has a long-standing relationship with the Wake County Public School System of NC for which she directed a violence prevention program in its elementary and middle schools as part of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant through the U.S. Department of Education. Much of Dr. DeRosier’s work with schools focuses on prevention of school violence. She has served on the School Safety and Threat Assessment Review Group (headed jointly by Department of Education, Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, and U.S. Secret Service) to develop the Threat Assessment in Schools Guidelines.
In addition to her positions with 3C Institute, Dr. DeRosier is actively engaged in training research scientists. She holds faculty appointments as research assistant professor in the School of Education at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), consulting associate faculty in Medical Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center (DUMC), and adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). She serves as faculty and mentor for researcher training programs, including the Center for Developmental Science at UNC-CH, the Leadership Training Institute for underrepresented research scientists, and the Research Career Development Institute at UPMC. Dr. DeRosier also leads several NIH-funded projects examining how technology can be used to effectively enhance training of mental health and behavioral scientists.
Dr. DeRosier obtained her MA in child developmental psychology from the University of Virginia and received her PhD in clinical psychology from UNC-CH. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship in mental health services and systems research jointly through UNC-CH and DUMC. Dr. DeRosier is a licensed psychologist and health services provider specializing in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents.
Dr. Childress obtained her PhD in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to coming to 3C Institute, she served as a research associate and a postdoctoral fellow in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working on a longitudinal imaging study aimed at identifying the early markers of autism through behavioral and imaging methodologies. She has 19 years of autism research experience, during which she has examined the behavioral, personality, and cognitive characteristics of individuals with autism and their family members. Dr. Childress also has experience developing behavioral and parent report measurement tools, coordinating multi-site research studies, and collecting data from children and families. She has taught courses and seminars in general child development, autism, and cognitive development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.