Bringing the Digital Health Revolution to Mental Wellness

By: Nathan Frey (Penn Ph.D.)

There is a sense that with regards to mental health care, America could be doing better. While debates about the Affordable Care Act and basic health services rage on, the issue of mental health is often put on the back-burner. Current estimates put American mental health care spending at $113 billion per year, despite the fact that nearly 90 million Americans live without adequate access to mental health care providers — making mental health care much more difficult to access than primary or dental care.

Mental health startups seek to help providers connect with clients and reduce barriers to receiving quality care. Ref: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers

This disparity in prioritization is certainly felt acutely on a university campus. On-campus mental health services do amazing work with limited resources, but there is an obvious disjoint between what University administrators think is adequate and what students may need. A similar dynamic exists on the national stage between insurers and patients, and mental health startups are here to help. Beyond providing products and services that are very much in-demand, mental health startups are bringing a data-driven approach to a market where outcomes are hard to measure and the struggle to monetize has kept big players out of the field.

Expanding Digital Health

The cornerstone of traditional mental health care is talk therapy; so how can mental health tech contribute to this space, when the entire process is built on direct human interaction, trust, and interpersonal relationships?

One of the simplest and most successful endeavors so far is Headspace, an app that provides guided meditations that are ideal for a commute. Substituting a quick meditation in place of five minutes of scrolling on a phone is a common strategy for people dealing with anxiety — and something like Headspace becomes an easy-to-use toolkit for building coping skills.

Regroup Therapy is applying the telemedicine model to mental health, by tapping into a group of over 3,000 psychiatrists and social workers who provide therapy via video chat. Regroup can provide flexibility in scheduling and specialized services that might not be available in smaller markets.

These and other emerging mental health startups share one important commonality (and constraint), they exist as tools to help clients and care providers, or to facilitate connections between these groups. Unavoidably, scaling is still limited by the finite number of trained professionals who can provide one-on-one or group care. This kind of barrier to growth is usually poisonous in the venture capital arena, but many mental health startups are exploiting new angles to entice investors.

How Does That Make You Feel?

Investors love data. In mental health, the success of a treatment is hard to quantify, meaningful correlations are hard to identify, and more often than not, self-reporting from clients is the primary measure of effectiveness. It’s hard to support a value proposition, or win over a venture capitalist or insurance company based on this kind of qualitative information.

Beyond offering new services and tools, mental health tech is bringing the data-driven revolution into a space that has lagged behind other industries in this regard. Companies like SilverCloud Health are built around promoting evidence-based treatments and aggregating data. They can track and show reduction to client dropout, improved client/provider engagement, and generate big data for studies that typically struggle to reach statistically meaningful sample sizes.

A Growing Community

Market map of mental health startups and 17 startups targeting brain health.

Here at Penn, NeuroFlow, a startup founded by Penn alumni Chris Molaro and Adam Pardes, are changing the way that clinicians and investors think about how data can be used to map out brain health. The NeuroFlow platform takes in biometric data and gives care providers a quantitative analysis of a client’s mental wellness. Product Manager Sam DeLuccia says that both investors and clinicians are excited about NeuroFlow’s potential to bring more objectivity to the mental health process. Sam emphasizes that NeuroFlow is a tool to help care providers, not a way to replace them. By efficiently interfacing with wearable technology that is already on the market, and giving clinicians a data-driven approach to monitoring patient progress, NeuroFlow is leading the charge on bringing mental health tech into the same kind of growth trajectories that have propelled digital health.

The mental health space is small by venture capital standards, but through addressing clear pain points and shifting towards an increasingly data-driven framework, mental health tech is yielding great opportunities, and investments surpassed $190 million in 2016. Innovation in mental health tech has led to more venture capital investments in the space every year since 2013, with 2017 predicted to see a record number of investments. All of this adds up to an exciting and rapidly growing slice of the health care startup space devoted to mental health.

Nathan is an Innovation Fund Project Manager. He’s a graduate student studying Materials Science and Engineering, and has a master’s degree in physics from Boston University, where he helped develop self-assembling organic building-blocks for next generation solar cells.

Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund is dedicated to funding, promoting, cultivating, and supporting student entrepreneurship in the UPenn community. Working on a startup and want to apply? Fill out our application here. Interested in partnering? Want to get involved? Drop us a line at apply.innovationfund at gmail.com.