When Elizabeth Tikoyan, 25, was a higher schooler in Fairfax, she came back from camp one summer and began experiencing strange symptoms: things like memory loss, severe fatigue, slurred speech, and issues walking. She spent the next four years shuffling between doctors’ offices until she was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease in 2013.
The next few years she lived at home with her parents, in and out of treatment as her friends went to prom, graduated, and left for college. “It was one of the loneliest experiences of my life,” says Tikoyan. “All my dreams had to be on hold. I didn’t know what my future would look like. Did I have a future?”
Today, Tikoyan’s disease is in remission, although she still lives with its chronic effects and sees a doctor monthly to maintain flare-ups. She eventually attended and graduated from the University of Virginia. While there, she got the idea to combine her interest in entrepreneurialism and chronic diseases into her recently launched app Riley, which lets healthcare patients connect with one another.
In treatment, Tikoyan found that most of the folks around her were much older. It was difficult to find other patients of a similar age going through the same experiences as she was, a situation she hopes Riley can remedy.
“Sometimes doctors give you a medical diagnosis, but they can’t tell you how to deal with social issues like dating with a health issue or going to work and telling your colleagues,” says Tikoyan. The app will be a platform to connect patients looking for these kinds of discussions and advice, she says.
Riley functions similarly to a dating app like Bumble or Hinge in that it uses geographic location and preferences to match users, but matches are intended to be platonic, not romantic. After you download the app, you’ll build a profile containing information such as age, location, hobbies, medical conditions, and the topics you’d like to discuss with matches.
The app is filtered by health condition, so if you choose “Lyme disease,” you’ll be matched with other Lyme-diagnosed folks in the area; if you choose a general “chronic disease” category, you’ll be matched with others experiencing chronic illness.
Users will receive five potential connections a day, which they swipe “left” or “right” on, just like most dating apps. If there’s a mutual connection between two users, they can then message each other on the app and take their friendship from there.
Tikoyan is currently working full-time on the app from her parents’ home in Fairfax. While she financed Riley’s launch through a series of entrepreneurial grants she won while at UVA, she’s currently bootstrapping and preparing to raise funding.
Right now, Riley is still in beta and has around 200 users from all over the world, says Tikoyan, with a large concentration in the DMV and Richmond areas. There’s a 1,000-person waitlist to download the app when it officially launches on the Apple App Store, which Tikoyan anticipates will happen soon.
And why the name Riley? When Tikoyan was in college, she volunteered at Georgetown University Hospital. While there, she became close with a young patient named Riley who was awaiting an organ transplant. Because of her compromised immune system, Riley couldn’t directly interact with people often, and technology became her means of connecting with the outside world. She passed away while Tikoyan was at school.
“It honestly devastated me,” says Tikoyan. “It’s the survivor’s guilt—that could have been me.” Because of HIPAA laws, Tikoyan was never able to connect with Riley’s family after she passed away. Tikoyan knew Riley would have loved to use an app like this, so she dedicated it to her. “How do I honor her legacy?,” Tikoyan says she remembers thinking. “I just thought she would have loved to use something like this.”
Riley will be available to download in the Apple App Store as soon as it’s approved, and an Android version will launch in February.