Why We Invested: Koko

The internet is, at its best, about human connections, trust between strangers and the power of people to help one another. It is on this foundation that Koko is built. Koko is a peer-to-peer network for emotional support that uses artificial intelligence and positive reframing to bring well-being to all users.

The premise is simple: We know that positive reframing can be a powerful tool to build resiliency. But doing it alone is challenging. We get caught up in unproductive thought patterns and hamstrung by our own biases. “You’re not alone” is a common refrain, but one that is of little comfort when you don’t feel like you have the support of people who understand what you’re going through. Koko democratizes access to emotional well-being by empowering anyone who can help to help.

Koko is meeting a fundamental need for emotional support that, to date, has really only been filled by friends, family, baristas and the like. But it’s often hard to share feelings of self-doubt or difficulty with bullying or loss with people we know. Koko is filling this gap by creating a completely new source of support. Koko is an anonymous, real-time emotional support tool that anyone can draw upon, when and where it’s needed, as often as needed, for free.

We’ve seen crowd contributions dramatically improve access to information (Wikipedia), knowledge (Quora, Stack Overflow) and capital (Kickstarter). When we first met co-founders Fraser Kelton, Rob Morris and Kareem Kouddous, they told us about the early inspiration for Koko. Rob was working on his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. With a background in psychology, Rob was new to coding and frustrated by code that didn’t work. He turned to Stack Overflow and found more than just answers. He found an unexpected source of mental and emotional support from fellow frustrated coders.

Like Stack Overflow, Koko harnesses the crowd’s desire to help one another by providing anonymous, one-on-one emotional support. Koko users see therapeutic benefits from contributing on both sides of the network. More than 80 percent of users both post and reframe, making the network that much stronger. Today, someone sharing a stressful situation receives an average of four responses, with the first arriving within five minutes. Ninety percent of responses are deemed helpful.

Unlike most other sources of emotional support, Koko reaches users when and where they need it most. With the launch of Kokobot, Koko extends the ability to give and receive support beyond the iOS environment. Kokobot works directly with messenger platforms like Kik to proactively identify individuals in need of support. For example, with the integration of Kokobot into Kik’s developer infrastructure, users don’t even have to recognize their need for support. When a Kik user shows signs of emotional distress while chatting with a third party bot, that bot can invite the user to meet Kokobot and receive support. Support is delivered seamlessly within the messenger platform, in real time. With Kokobot, we see enormous potential for any bot, messenger or conversational agent to provide its users with emotional support.

We are excited to lead Koko’s Series A, alongside existing investors Union Square Ventures and Joi Ito. With the new funding, Koko will focus on expanding its reach across messengers and improving the AI engine.

Earlier this year, a group of Stanford and UCSF researchers evaluated the performance of 77 conversational agents, including Siri, Google Now, Cortana and S Voice, in responding to simple questions about mental health, physical health, and domestic violence. Some performed better than others, but none was fully equipped to deal with users’ concerns. The researchers concluded: “if conversational agents are to respond fully and effectively to health concerns, their performance will have to substantially improve”.

As users continue to engage with bots and conversational agents, the need for emotional intelligence by these agents will only grow. We see emotional intelligence as a potentially enormous source of competitive advantage for these agents and their platform hosts, as well as a boon for human resiliency. While we’re not there yet, we look forward to a world that brings the best of human interactions to non-human interfaces.

It’s one thing to say, “you’re not alone”. With Koko, it’s nice to know that you truly aren’t alone.


For more on entrepreneurship, startups and product leadership, get our monthly Insights newsletter delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.