The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on emotional wellbeing and mental health. Documented cases of depression and anxiety in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past year, and similar trends have been observed around the world.

At a recent digital conference hosted by Start-Up Nation Central as part of its flagship Jerusalem-based series “Tech Meets Design,” leading entrepreneurs and investors in the digital emotional wellbeing field shared their perspectives on how to innovative at scale, which solutions are poised to become successful, and how COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of these solutions.

According to Wendy Singer, Executive Director at Start-Up Nation Central, “over the past few years, there has been a surge in innovative solutions in the field of health-tech; but digital mental health solutions have lagged behind, at least until COVID-19 entered our lives.” Now, emotional wellbeing startups are beginning to take off, growing their user bases and garnering notable venture capital investment.

The event was titled “Design, Tech and Wellbeing in the New Digital Age” and hosted some of the leading entrepreneurs and investors in this space, who explored solutions that call for a multidisciplinary approach.

“Creating an amazing space for innovation to flourish”

Keynote speaker, psychiatrist Dr. Nina Vasan, spoke about the changes COVID-19 brought about. Vasan – Chief Medical Officer at startup Real, and Founder & Executive Director at Brainstorm, the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation – explained why emotional wellbeing startups were relatively slow to take off prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s fundamentally changed.

“About a year ago, a lot of the digital tools out there were B2B oriented and adoption was relatively low on the B2C side,” she said. “And then, overnight, there was this forcing function due to COVID-19, and everyone had to adopt this stuff.” Dr. Vasan illustrated this statement by noting that in January 2020, none of the clinics in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry, where she is an Assistant Professor, were online – and now, all of the department’s clinics have moved online.

 Psychiatrist Dr. Nina Vasan, Chief Medical Officer at startup Real

The second aspect that COVID-19 has solved is regulation, according to Vasan. In the U.S., “state boundaries on medical licenses have been dissolved, which really changes access in an exciting way.” This, in turn, has resulted in a shift of pricing models, making it possible for digital solutions to receive reimbursement equal to the amounts allotted by the healthcare system for in-person care, “creating an amazing space for innovation to flourish.”

Technology redesigns therapy

Another reason that emotional wellbeing startups have seen a huge liftoff in 2020 – with funding reaching $462 million in the first quarter alone, compared to $750 million in funding for all of 2019 – is that customers are looking for more meaningful engagements online. According to panel participant Boaz Gaon, CEO of Wisdo – a mobile app that enables users to share their stories, connect with others who have been through similar experiences, and give and receive helpful advice – “consumers aren’t excited about the magic of being able to connect with anyone on earth anymore; they are looking for a better sense of connection, which is why many of them are also willing to step up and play a role giving that type of experience to other folks.”

Gaon explains how this concept has helped build a sense of safety and trust on his platform that he says, “was able to lower loneliness by 60% within two weeks of starting to use the app, and to increase social resilience by 6% in the same timeframe.”

While Gaon says the design of his app is key to building the necessary trust, Dr. Vasan discusses how Real Therapy, whose membership costs $1 a day (as opposed to $200 a session), is using technology to redesign therapy. “The real question is, how can we use design and technology to really undo some of the systematic problems in our society?” Vasan asks.

She mentioned working with Pinterest on a project: “We actually took some of the same sorts of treatments and therapies that we would do with patients at the clinic, and translated these into short, five-minute exercises that you can do on the Pinterest platform. So now, when you go on the platform and type ‘depression’, you actually get all of these micro-treatments that are based on more rigorous, scientific treatments, which you can do within the platform itself.”

Vasan, who spoke about the importance of living by the medical oath “first, do no harm” in the tech world as well, described her work with engineers on algorithms that better understand mental triggers, which eventually contributed to an “88% decrease in self-harm content on the platform.” 

“Seamlessly integrated into people’s everyday lives”

In addition to Vasan and Gaon, two venture capitalists who are active in this space participated in the event: Jonathan Friedman, a partner at LionBird, and Miri Polachek, CEO of Joy Ventures, which co-organized the event. “It is a very young category, and the first generation of products are still in the process of proving themselves, both in terms of the effect that they have on the user, and their ability to create some kind of change,” Polachek said. “However, the real challenge is to create a product that’s not only effective, but that can be seamlessly integrated into people’s everyday lives. What we’ve been seeing are various technologies that create immersive and engaging experiences that make people feel good and want to take care of themselves.”

According to Friedman, “successful solutions will be intelligently integrated into the patient’s journey, especially for specific areas where, in times of crisis, there is a need for a trusted advisor. Customized solutions are required in these areas, so there is plenty of white space ahead for the sector.”

Start-Up Nation Central is an independent nonprofit that builds bridges to Israeli innovation. We connect business, government, and NGO leaders from around the world with Israeli innovation, offering Israeli innovators access to high-potential and previously inaccessible markets, through highly customized business engagements, and through Start-Up Nation Finder – an easy-to-use, up-to-date, free online platform for discovering and connecting with thousands of relevant innovators.