Health Tech: Joan Low On How ThoughtFull’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

An Interview With Luke Kervin

Luke Kervin, Co-Founder of Tebra
Authority Magazine

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Know what the specific problem is. There are a few ways to go about this: top-down or bottom-up approach. Everyone starts with a top-down hypothesis, most will run with that top-down assumption and build their solution based on that but very few will go to the ground to truly understand the journey and validate those hypothesized problems. Taking this extra step will already set you apart from your peers at the outset. ThoughtFull spent 9 months doing the groundwork, reaching thousands of would-be clients to validate our various assumptions. We were data (and experience)-driven from Day 1 which is what has kept our development on track.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Low.

Joan Low is the Founder and CEO of ThoughtFull, a digital mental health startup whose vision is to make access to mental healthcare seamless and affordable in Asia. Taking an evidence-based approach, its mobile apps,

ThoughtFullChat and ThoughtFullChat Pro, uses its proprietary architecture to enable users to access, and mental healthcare professionals to provide, personalized best-fit mental healthcare.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I had a very grounded upbringing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, filled with family, love, and a healthy dose of competition and challenges. I left the nest after high school for a journey of the seven seas — I was fortunate to be the only Malaysian scholar at the United World College in Canada before moving to the United States to attend Middlebury College as a Davis Scholar (immersing deeply in languages!). Whilst at Middlebury, I spent a year abroad in Paris and Beijing where I attended local universities and completed internships.

Whilst my young adulthood was characterized by immersive learning and self-discovery, certain realities of life unconsciously defined it as well. We have been mental health caregivers to a loved one living with severe mental health challenges for more than 20 years. Back then, #mentalhealth was not a trending hashtag, in fact, hashtags were non-existent. Stigma was high, information scarce, treatment options limited — especially in Southeast Asia. We experienced first-hand hurdles of trying to get seamless mental healthcare in a timely and affordable manner. Unfortunately, we still experience these hurdles today. This is what compelled me to leave finance in Hong Kong where I was managing a portfolio of ~USD1.3 billion at JP Morgan, to found ThoughtFull. ThoughtFull’s vision is to make access to end-to-end mental healthcare seamless and affordable for all.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Randomness. It’s not one story per se, but a consistent theme throughout my career — the fact that I seemingly do things I was not necessarily “trained to do”.

From my own experience growing up in Asia, your career pathways are usually clear — at 15 years old, you choose between Sciences or “Arts” (where Arts really means the lack of science subjects rather than actual Art). At 17 years old, you decide if you want to be a Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer, Accountant, Astronaut(?) Then your Degree is a function of your chosen profession or vocation.

I was pre-engineering until that fateful scholarship to Canada — everything went out the window. The concept of Liberal Arts opened up a different pathway where the pursuit and mastery of knowledge as well as experience trumped any predetermined vocation. From social entrepreneurship to fashion, political sciences to languages; what seemed random at first, in fact trained me to take broader views of systems. How do we identify seemingly disparate dots and learn how to connect them to make something useful?

My career started with Finance in Hong Kong. I neither studied Finance nor spoke Cantonese. But learning how to learn, fast, helped. Today at ThoughtFull, we are bridging systems across the BioPsychoSocial spheres — identifying the dots in psychology, pharmacology, research, data, AI, user experience, the list goes on. The fun part is knowing the impact we can have once we successfully connect these seemingly disparate dots to make access to end-to-end mental healthcare more seamless for people.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Life is a continuum where every chapter has its own characters who have helped me learn and grow along the way. As people and relationships play a big part in my life, it’ll be hard to pinpoint one specific person. Generally, my family plays a big role in anchoring why I do things and the mentors and friends I meet along the way play a big role in molding how I do things.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I used to be called “Coconut Tree” growing up (you’ll find out why if we ever meet in person!), so this quote is an homage to my childhood moniker: “Growing ever taller, yet deeply rooted.’’

Reach for the stars, set sail to the seas, yet never lose anchor. It has been more than 15 years since I set sail, and today, I am back in Southeast Asia ready to harness the lessons learned to contribute back to where it all started.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Authenticity. Be it your intentions, interactions, actions, do it authentically and sincerely. People who join you on your professional and/or personal journey — investors, business partners, clients, colleagues, family, friends — are more likely to stay the course with you if its an authentic relationship from the start. Some of ThoughtFull’s early backers and founding team are people who have been with me from previous chapters. They have seen not just the non-linear pathway of life, but of building successful startups and stay the course with us.

2. Grit / Resilience. Behind every beautifully curated highlight reel the world sees, lies many lessons of the inner fortitude that is needed to bounce back from our lows and push forth when the road gets long. Ask any Founder out there about how many “No’s” they have faced before reaching that one “Yes”.

3. Healthy dose of idealism. As the late Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Having a purpose beyond self and the material now helps give us confidence to create a world as it could be and push through the noise and naysayers. When I decided to leave finance to start a company tackling one of the most stigmatized and underserved industries, most people thought I was crazy. Then the pandemic happened, and it reasons are ever clearer.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

The pandemic has accelerated the urgent need for seamless access to personalized mental healthcare for all as we face the largest mental health crisis to date. Whilst the necessity and demand for mental healthcare increases exponentially, current traditional mental health systems are fragmented and not equipped to meet the rising demand for support. ThoughtFull is building, digitizing, and scaling the mental healthcare delivery ecosystem in order to deliver seamless personalized care for all.

Our apps, ThoughtFullChat and ThoughtFullChat Pro are the products of the bottom-up deep groundwork we have done in the ecosystem.

How do you think your technology can address this?

The pandemic not only brought to light the ubiquity of mental health challenges, but also the acute gaps in end-to-end care delivery both online and offline. We have recently entered a partnership with Pfizer Singapore to provide seamless accessibility to biopsychosocial care for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in Singapore — which has a treatment gap of 73% locally due to stigma as well as accessibility issues attributed to siloed care models between biological and psychological care.

This collaboration will connect psychosocial professionals such as Counsellors and Psychologists, to healthcare providers such as Psychiatrists and Primary Care doctors. It is the first of its kind to join key

facets of the mental health care ecosystem on one platform for users and aims to set the standard for

holistic mental healthcare.

From curated self-serve content, tracking, as well as, 1-on-1 behavioural coaching and therapy, the ThoughtFullChat app encourages individuals to engage with their mental health earlier rather than later. Now backed by a panel of healthcare providers for pharmacological support, we will be partnering medical professionals to pioneer new ways of care delivery for MDD patients.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As a mental health caregiver for more than 20 years, I have experienced the first-hand challenges to accessing seamless and sustainable end-to-end mental healthcare in Southeast Asia. These gaps are in vast contrast to the break-neck speed of digital mental health innovations happening in places such as the US and Europe where I have spent time living, working, and studying. This compelled me to leave the world of finance, where I was also managing a portfolio of USD1.3bn at JP Morgan, Hong Kong, to dedicate my time instead to addressing the vast digital innovation gaps in the mental health space in Southeast Asia.

How do you think this might change the world?

In the last few decades, we have seen how different waves of technological advancements have impacted our lives. The first wave of builders established the infrastructure needed to bring internet to households and individuals the world over. The second wave saw pioneers build upon this connectivity to change the way we socialize (social media), work (productivity), purchase (e-commerce), bank (FinTech), move (logistics), amongst others. Today, the advancements in AI and data insights enables us to complement as well as enhance human-delivered care by anticipating needs faster and creating more personalized pathways for individuals. Such ability is key for industries such as Healthcare, which until the pandemic, has been a laggard in digital adoption.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

The fine balance between cost and benefit of tech-enabled solutions cuts across all sectors and it is particularly important in healthcare. Take social media for example — on the one hand, the sense of community and access to information has undeniable benefits to mental health. On the other hand, social media addiction and issues such as anxiety and body dysmorphia related to media consumption are unintended circumstances. As ThoughtFullChat is the first port-of-call for users to access end-to-end care, unintended dependencies, safety, and measurable clinical outcomes are something we have top of mind. Hence, ThoughtFull not only has systems in place to constantly safeguard and measure outcomes, but we are also keeping a close relationship with our end-users and providers to ensure both sides of the coin are accounted for.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

1. Know what the specific problem is. There are a few ways to go about this: top-down or bottom-up approach. Everyone starts with a top-down hypothesis, most will run with that top-down assumption and build their solution based on that but very few will go to the ground to truly understand the journey and validate those hypothesized problems. Taking this extra step will already set you apart from your peers at the outset. ThoughtFull spent 9 months doing the groundwork, reaching thousands of would-be clients to validate our various assumptions. We were data (and experience)-driven from Day 1 which is what has kept our development on track.

2. Know who is experiencing the problem. Many a time, there are large swaths of populations that your solution could potentially benefit but to try and tackle all of them at once will be hard. The more time you spend refining your problem, the sooner you are able to target your solution to a specific group. Mental health affects everyone, but we had to narrow our focus rather than attempt to solve everyone’s problems at once. Do we focus on mental health issues affecting employees, youth, geriatrics? Which demographics need it most? What are the challenges for each? Should we focus on specific diagnoses instead? These were some of the questions we needed to answer and we iterate along the way.

3. Know why they have that problem. Not understanding why someone is experiencing a certain problem will make it very hard to truly deliver something someone will use, not just once, but over a long time. Understanding the why allows you to go to the crux of the issue and build from first principles. Most of us spend 60% of our time working and more than 60% of our stress factors are directly or indirectly work-related. Working with employers are thus our priority currently.

4. Know when they experience the problem. Is there a specific time in a day, week, month, year that your would-be clients experience said challenges more acutely? Perhaps it’s a specific chapter in their lives? Or is it ongoing, and if yes, then for how long a duration? Through groundwork, measurement, and analysis, being able to answer these questions will help immensely. At ThoughtFull, we observe that clients from different industries will experience peak employee stress at different times and for different reasons. This allows us to cater our offering accordingly to meet their needs in a timely manner.

5. Know how they’ve been trying to solve the problem and what works/doesn’t work? If your solution did not exist, what would your target client be doing to solve that specific problem? How are they presently utilizing technology to solve the problem? Do we need to bring entirely new technology in? Or simply enhancements to improve the incumbent solutions? Through ThoughtFull’s groundwork, we learned that traditional telemedicine models of connecting a user to a mental health professional online was only solving part of the (logistics) problem. Stigma and lack of mental health understanding still inhibits people from engaging with their mental health. The lack of longitudinal measurement also meant that clients will never know the progress they are making, thereby inhibiting sustained engagement. This is why ThoughtFullChat is designed so that clients can engage without stigma through text and audio messaging first. In order to sustain engagement, our models also promotes ongoing asynchronous engagement rather than one-off sessions.

Answer those questions, and you’ll be a step closer to building the tech needed to solve the problem you are focused on.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you were to leave this world a better place than when you entered it, what would be different?

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Reed Hastings to explore/challenge how his high talent density, high candor, no rules environments can be adapted effectively in Asia.

Sarah Blakely because she is the ultimate badas* of a female entrepreneur. Not only did she build Spanx from scratch at a time when the “startup game” was not yet mainstream, but she has also successfully built a culture and company that has endured through various cycles — all with a solo female founder at the helm paving the way for others like her. In a very male dominated industry (tech and healthcare in Asia), we need more role models like her and I would like to learn how to get there.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For more information and updates on what we do, you can head over to our website www.thoughtfull.world or follow us on Facebook/Instagram (@athoughtfullworld).

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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Luke Kervin, Co-Founder of Tebra
Authority Magazine

Luke Kervin is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Tebra