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Could COVID-19 Spark Mental Health Technology Benefits?

2nd May, 2020

Niraj Shah



The use of technology designed to raise mental health and emotional wellbeing has become increasingly more prominent. In the early weeks of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Make A Difference Media asked me to share some insight into the landscape to date and what may now change.

Mental Health Technology Has Been Rising Fast

Having been involved in this space closely for a few years I’ve seen its consistent rise from a niche area of interest to one sitting on the edge of the mainstream. 2019 signaled mental health technology’s first “unicorn” with the meditation app Calm raising an $88 million Series B at a $1 billion valuation.

There are a growing number of other start-ups in the sector with multi-million dollar funding, growing multi-million dollar revenues or both. It’s worth remembering that this was not the case as little as just 10 years ago, when the meditation app Headspace – widely considered to be the first major success story in the field – was about to be incorporated in May 2010.

Earlier this year Octopus Ventures, one of the largest early stage investors in Europe, released a study based on the analysis of Pitchbook data that showed global investment in mental health technology start-ups to have increased five-fold in the last six years from £120m in 2014 to £580m in 2019.

More recently, venture capitalist Stephen Hays reported that the first quarter of 2020 has seen explosive growth in mental health startup funding in comparison to prior years. Q1 funding alone reached $462m against 2019’s full year amount of $750m. That’s 61% of the funding in just 25% of the time, showing an acceleration rate of over 100%.

Flight to Quality

As the digital mental health sector has started to mature, we are also seeing products that are more mature at launch. There is a recognition within the industry that some degree of clinical validation is increasingly becoming more important to both consumers and corporate buyers.

As a result we are seeing new products like state changing wearable Apollo that had some robust research from the University of Pittsburgh behind it at launch, or the likes of functional music for mental states app Brain.fm having neuroscientists on staff as part of the product development process. That’s in contrast to the earlier pattern of launching first and seeking clinical validation later.

Impact of COVID-19

The pandemic is having a triple boosting effect on the sector. Firstly, as it’s a time of relatively sudden widespread global trauma, levels of stress, anxiety and insomnia have been spiking, leading people to seek specific solutions for those problems. Secondly, with many folks confined to their homes, anything digitally delivered or that can be used at home is in greater demand. Thirdly, there is a general flight towards health and well-being solutions, particularly anything that can be interpreted as “immune boosting”.

Since lockdown measures started being implemented around the world from March 2020 onwards, a wide range of digital and e-commerce health and wellbeing brands have been telling me that they have seen their online traffic and sales rising dramatically. We have also experienced a similar effect ourselves at Mind: Unlocked.

I’m seeing this in the corporate world too. An insider at a major corporate well-being player recently told me that “Discussions with large multinationals that used to take 6-9 months are currently taking days. We’re inundated with requests”. Companies are scrambling to set up completely new remote working systems and procedures, and it’s clear that for many – whether the reasons are altruistic, self serving or political – employee well-being has moved up the agenda.

Regulations and policies

Wellness largely remains an unregulated sector, which has long created one of the hurdles faced by consumers of buyers of these products and services around whether something will work and who to trust. It’s largely in response to those barriers that start-ups are increasingly coming to the table with more validated products as covered earlier.

More established players are going one step further with Headspace announcing two years agothat it was aiming to gain FDA approval to become the first “prescription meditation” app. It remains to be seen if Headspace will win the race to become the first mental health digital therapeutic, as there are others also vying for that. With digital therapeutics now getting FDA approval for other areas of health, I think it’s a matter of time before we see this happen for a mental health oriented technology.

More immediately, in light of the current crisis and a scramble for effective solutions, there is a looming threat that regulations and policies pushed through as short term emergency measures could become a fixture of life. For example, in China and Israel we’ve seen new citizen surveillance tools deployed to track coronavirus cases pushed through as mandatory measures, regardless of the data privacy issues. Whilst these are unlikely to be deployed in Western nations in the same way, it serves as a powerful example of a multitude of things that could change. Yuval Noah Harari wrote an excellent opinion piece on this in the Financial Times recently.

I think that there is a potential abuse use-case for every different mental health technology that I’ve seen so far from mental state tracking / influencing wearables to virtual reality therapy to emotion recognition hardware and more. As such, founders need to stay vigilant and have good intentions in the first place. We are also relying on governments to take a responsible approach over a self-serving approach.

Another danger lies in unintended negative consequences and I question if current regulatory frameworks can react and re-react fast enough to keep these to a minimum. As the pace of technological change speeds up, we are likely to need to see some reform here.

Conclusion

Whether the current pandemic-led behavioural shifts towards digital mental health products are short term trends or the start of a medium term shift remains to be seen. I think it’s the latter. It’s becoming clear that we are not going back to our previous interpretation of normal life very soon, so some elements of general uncertainty – fueling further stress and anxiety – and remote working will likely remain for a while.

COVID-19 has forced digital adoption, particularly for those who were somewhat opposed to digital over physical solutions, and a flight towards health and wellness products and services in general. It’s likely that some of the effects of both will remain long after the pandemic, giving the digital mental health and well-being sector a welcome acceleration.




Niraj Shah

Niraj Shah is an entrepreneur, stroke survivor, technology enthusiast, angel investor, business advisor and mental well-being speaker. As European Co-Chair for Silicon Valley’s Transformative Technology Lab, the leading global community of entrepreneurs using technology to raise mental health and emotional well-being, he has a unique insight into and understanding of the wellness technology landscape. Niraj is also co-founder of Mind: Unlocked, his mission is to make research-led, practical mental well-being tools designed for busy 21st century lives more accessible. He combines these interests with a love for travel and snowboarding.

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