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Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Mental Health: A Collaboration Between Hopelab and Hack Mental Health

On June 19 Hopelab hosted a panel event with our partners at Hack Mental Health. This was a natural progression from our collaboration during their west coast hackathon earlier this year, in which we sponsored a prize and I judged. The panel was focused on starting a digital mental health company – a topic that is increasingly on people’s minds. Mental health problems are not new – but the recognition that there is a huge unmet need in the area, and that technology can be part of the solution, is becoming more and more pervasive in the Bay area. In 2017 47 million U.S. adults age 18+ suffered from a mental health condition (that’s 1 in 5), and only two-thirds of those received ANY type of treatment, leaving a million people without any treatment. VC funding has poured into digital mental health startups in recent years – 2018 saw $378 million in VC funding to mental health tech companies, the largest year yet. Our event brought together early-stage startup founders as well as those with passion and an idea, to learn about the digital mental health startup space from three leaders working in different areas: Hopelab CEO Margaret Laws, Affect Mental Health CEO and Co-Founder Sarah Seegal, and Modern Health CEO and Co-Founder Alyson Friedensohn. I was honored to moderate these three outstanding women and to connect their personal motivation to work in digital mental health, and help draw out their advice to newbies on the entrepreneurial journey. Here are some takeaways:

Passion NOW. We packed our event space to standing-room-only. In fact, we had to turn away hundreds who applied to take part in this panel event. Attendees were a diverse and talented group, from clinicians to data scientists to technologists to entrepreneurs, and many with lived experience of mental health challenges – of their own and of loved ones. My job as moderator was easy – questions were sourced directly from attendees themselves and there were hundreds to choose from. The questions – about forming a team, searching for funding, nonprofit/for-profit structure, evidence and validation, and how to create something that can be financially sustainable AND serve underserved populations are the challenges that we take on every day at Hopelab. It is exciting to see a growing cadre of smart, motivated, diverse young people signing up to brave these challenges and to try to help innovate through them.

College campuses offer a special opportunity. Many people at the event were touched by their own or close others’ experiences of mental health problems during the college years. The college years are ones in which many mental health problems peak and this has increased in recent years: one national survey recently reported that 1 in 3 college students has a mental health diagnosis, an increase from 1 in 5 just ten years prior. This is coupled with both lack of available services and under-engagement of available services on college campuses. A national report of mental health service utilization on campuses found that between 2009 and 2015, counseling center utilization increased by 20-30%, while enrollment increased by only 5% – and the increased need was largely due to more students showing a heightened risk of self-harm. Many of the aspiring entrepreneurs in the room were thinking about how to engage technology to help with both of those issues. Some of the solutions were seeking to engage those at risk before their problems get to a dangerous level. Others were seeking to help those who already know they have the tendency to get to a dangerous level, using technology to identify early warning signs and connect people with help. Hopelab is working on our own solution to a key problem among college students today-loneliness. The panel helped to articulate that, no matter what the solution, for a startup to thrive, it has to have that particular combination of making something that people really need and want to use, as well as a way for it to thrive in an increasingly busy marketplace.

Women are an important part of the conversation. Let’s face it. Silicon Valley, and startups, in particular, are decidedly male. A 2019 report from Silicon Valley Bank reported that just 28 percent of startups have at least one female founder, and only 40 percent have at least one woman on the board of directors. Women-led startups got only 2 percent of VC capital in 2019. That’s abysmal. There are some changes afoot, though, and digital mental health could be an area with particular growth opportunities. According to Rock Health, digital health is a slightly better area for women founders, with about 10 percent of digital health investments between 2011 and 2017 going to companies led by women. That’s at least a little better than the rest of the startup landscape. Our event reflected this energy. Most notably, the panel was made up of all women. This reflects the wealth of seasoned female leaders in the mental health and social impact spaces, as well as the willingness to give back through sharing experiences and more hands-on mentoring. Alyson Friedensohn shared that her experiences with both the Y Combinator accelerator and mentoring from other founders were fundamental in her journey starting and growing Modern Health. As women gain more female mentors, their success will grow exponentially. There is a particular swell of women wanting to start something in the digital mental health space, and Hopelab wants to support their efforts.

We are excited to be part of a movement to create and support innovation in mental health and emotional well-being for young people, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with the HMH community and other fellow travelers.

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