TECHNOLOGY

These Startups Are Using AI and Virtual Reality to Fight Mental Illness

A growing number of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness, yet only a fraction receive treatment. These companies offer a solution.

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BY Zoe Henry - 09 Jun 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Mental health professionals and entrepreneurs have a message for those suffering from anxiety and depression: You are not alone.

That message seems especially relevant in 2018. The sudden deaths of Kate Spade, the fashion designer and entrepreneurial icon, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain this week shine a light on a systemic problem: Mental illness. Both Spade and Bourdain are reported to have taken their own lives, with the former having struggled with depression for a long period of time, according to her husband, Andy Spade. They were 55 and 61, respectively.

Indeed, roughly 18 percent of American adults suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and yet only a fraction of those access the treatment that they need or could benefit from. That's a problem that a growing number of technology companies want to tackle.

To be sure, the best pathway to treatment is consulting a licensed professional. In the absence of a therapist--or in a pinch--here are seven tech startups that want to help those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental illness. Of course, should you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

1. Quartet Health

Founded in 2014 by Arun Gupta, a Palantir expat, and Steve Shulman, the startup uses machine learning to identify patients with possible mental health conditions. It then links those patients, primary care physicians and behavioral therapists to come up with a customized treatment plan.

"Making collaboration between primary care physicians and behavioral health specialists work is a must if we are going to improve the overall health of our country," said Gupta. "The bridge between mental and physical health is being built with technology leading the charge."

The New York City firm, which partners with some insurance providers, has raised $92 million in funding, from investors including Polaris Partners and, most recently, Google Ventures.

2. DotCom Therapy

Recent Inc. 30 under 30 honorees Emily Purdom and Rachel Robinson came up with the idea for DotCom Therapy in 2015. The Springfield, Missouri-based business has a unique approach to healthcare: It partners with 28 schools in seven countries to provide speech therapy, occupational therapy, mental health and tele-audiology services, connecting patients to some 90 therapists with laptops at the ready. Sessions start $30 for 15 minutes. "Now is the time when everyone has a laptop, a tablet, a phone, and this is the first time in history when everyone's connected," said co-founder Robinson in a recent interview with Inc. "So whether you're living in Downtown Chicago or rural Alaska, you have a way of accessing this technology."

With the exception of a small friends and family raise, the company is self-funded. It booked $2 million in revenue last year.

3. Talkspace

Even at the height of his career in 2014, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was deeply depressed, and contemplating suicide. "I hadn't left my room for five days," he said. "I questioned whether I wanted to be alive anymore." After connecting with a therapist, Phelps said, he was finally able to tackle his problems head-on.

Last month, Phelps teamed up with Talkspace as part of an effort to promote awareness for mental illness. Talkspace connects users to licensed therapists through a website and mobile app, with plans starting at $32 per session. Founded by Oren and Roni Frank in 2012, the company says it has treated more than half a million patients, and counting.

4. Joyable

This San Francisco startup, which bills itself as the leading online solution for overcoming social anxiety, wants to help those who are time-strapped. The Joyable app offers brief, five-to-ten minute activities for users, ranging from checking in with your feelings at any given moment and examining 'personal values.' Individual plans cost $99 per month, and typically involve eight-to-twelve weeks of guided therapy, including check-ins with a regular coach. The activities are modeled after a psychotherapy method called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, a heavily researched and widely-respected field.

Joyable, which launched in 2013, has raised more than $15 million in funding and claims to have reached more than 500,000 users.

5. Lantern

This app specifically aims to help those suffering from stress, anxiety and body image issues. Lantern, which insists it's more of a supplement than a replacement for traditional talk therapy, connects patients to licensed professionals for regular check-ins. The service costs around $49 per month, or $300 per year, and Lantern is currently working to integrate with employers such that its tools are covered by insurance and can be offered to workers as a benefit.

Based in San Francisco, the company--headed up by Alejandro Foung and Nicholas Letourneau--launched in 2012, and has raised over $20 million.

6. Limbix

Palo Alto, California-based Limbix is not your average virtual reality startup: It makes a software that therapists use in what's called "exposure therapy," simulating stressful or trauma-inducing situations for patients to help them overcome their fears. Co-founder and CEO Benjamin Lewis, a former Google project manager, launched the company with Tony Hsieh in 2016. Since that time, Limbix has raised more than $3 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, as it builds on more than two decades of research and clinical trials.

7. Woebot

This AI-powered app functions as a therapy chatbot for those suffering from depression and anxiety. Similar to Limbix, Woebot uses principles of CBT to recommend various tools and techniques for overcoming stressful situations on the fly. Founded by Alison Darcy, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University, and a team of researchers in 2017, Woebot costs $39 per month.