Mental health used to be a topic that few talked about, but the global pandemic opened the floodgates for discussion, and propelled startups focused on the sector with both renewed demand and venture capital investment.
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Among a Crunchbase list of global startups focused on mental health, investors have pumped $5.1 billion into 315 companies since 2016. Within that, just over $1.8 billion has been invested so far in 2021, according to Crunchbase data. For companies headquartered in the United States, there were 358 investments totaling $3.8 billion in the past five years.
Of those 315 global companies, 97 mental health companies were labeled as having female founders, with those companies raising nearly $1.7 billion in funding since 2016.
Four of those female leaders in the space spoke to me about the mental health space, going after funding for their companies, and women’s mental health specifically, especially with the outsized impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce.
What follows are excerpts of my conversations with April Koh, co-founder and CEO of Spring Health (employee mental well-being); Naomi Allen, co-founder of Brightline (behavioral health services for children and their families); Roni Frank, co-founder of Talkspace (online therapy); and Alyson Watson, co-founder and CEO of Modern Health (employee mental well-being). The conversations are presented in their own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
April Koh, Spring Health
There is so much momentum for mental health; even before the pandemic there was an urgent need. When COVID hit, it wasn’t just COVID, but all of the social injustice issues happened so quickly over the past year, and that drove more demand. Millennials and Gen Z feel a lot differently about mental health and are more open about struggles and issues. Employers are paying attention and responding to that demand.
It’s been a remarkable privilege to be a founder in the mental health space. I have a different vantage point than my male counterparts. Some aspects of mental health affect women and not men, so I have empathy. Women are at a 2x higher risk for mental health issues than men. I have personally struggled with mental health and have been on my own journey.
Women who need mental health care are diverse in race and sexuality, and we are starting to highlight the diversity of our network. We have brought in 3x the number of providers of color, and 37 percent specialize in LGBTQ+ issues. A lot of mothers are worried about their children and their mental health, so we have also invested in children’s mental health care.
The bar is getting higher and higher for mental health. Competition has been amazing for the space. It is pushing all of us to offer better and better care. Before, better access was the tablestake, and now it is personalization and data. Everything in our life is personalized, and mental health is moving in that direction, and we are at the forefront.
Naomi Allen, Brightline
Brightline focuses on full-care delivery for pediatric behavioral health. We founded Brightline before COVID to meet this unmet need to support families. Pre-COVID, 1 in 5 children had a behavioral health condition, and another 20 percent would have been diagnosed if they had access to care. Seventy-five percent of counties don’t have support in this area to lead to an appropriate diagnosis.
There needs to be more female founders and investors. I run a female group for digital health founders, and there are 15 really experienced venture-backed founders working in digital health in the group. The money going into female entrepreneurs is leading to hit after hit. Health care is unique in that it is not enough to have a good product, but a successful team expertise to be able to go to market and have product market fit. It is complex, and as a result, not many are drawn to health unless they are compelled by a mission.
We are seeing a couple of trends in mental health, such as meeting the person where they are. When we first started, we weren’t sure how children would respond to virtual care. You can put a 5-year-old in front of the screen, but it takes work to get it done right. Some parents are also delighted by virtual-first and love it because they like the convenience of not having to shuttle their kids to in-person care models, plus the kids love being in a comfortable space. We hope that in a few years it won’t be digital health versus in-person, but just health.
Roni Frank, Talkspace
Many Americans have been suffering for years without the ability to receive professional help, and these trends have only been accelerated by this unprecedented year with the pandemic, social unrest and financial crisis. All of these recent issues also heightened existing anxiety, depression, relationship issues and loneliness.
Providers tell us they appreciate the flexibility and efficiency of the Talkspace platform. It manages billing, scheduling, reminders and any kind of operation. This saves them a lot of time and allows them to focus on what they love, which is helping people. It’s a game-changer for both patients and providers.
I think that as a woman, I’m also more aware of the importance of good mental health and how it plays a major role in the quality of my relationships, my work, my productivity and my ability to maintain good physical health. Women are usually more willing to talk about mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, etc., because we typically feel more comfortable having these kinds of conversations. I bring these insights into my role each day in working to disrupt traditional approaches to mental health care and making it more accessible.
There is no doubt that machine learning and AI are revolutionizing mental health care. AI technologies in health care are focused on improving treatment outcomes and reducing costs.
Predictive analytics through ML and AI tools will help our providers in many ways, such as delivering better patient engagement and increasing efficiency by transferring administrative tasks to machines to allow health care professionals to spend more time with their patients and focus on their care.
Alyson Watson, Modern Health
We are growing fast, and any hypergrowth company requires work, but you have to look at how to balance that and take care of your own mental health. Every company out there is growing fast, so there is some burnout. As a first-time founder and a CEO, taking care of my own mental health has to be core to my DNA.
When the pandemic hit, there was an increase in demand for our services. We knew this was our “Super Bowl,” and had a mission to help, so we put it in overdrive to support the demand. Though while we had this rallying cry, fast-forward six weeks later, and I remember it taking 45 minutes to write an email. I couldn’t get my thoughts down. I sent a message to my team that what we were doing was not realistic or sustainable in the long term. It’s the analogy of being on an airplane, and you put your own oxygen mask on first before the person next to you. Today, we are still super scrappy, but we prioritize our own mental health, too.
We can play a huge role in paving the way and making a much healthier society. The onus is on us to step up and show support and care. There is a special moment right now for female CEOs to build a culture from within that allows employees to thrive. Those things matter — doing the little things, having mental health days — a lot of women who run companies are afraid to tap into that. There is an opportunity to lean in, and those who will be most successful are building a healthy culture.
Founder photos courtesy of their respective companies.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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