Tackling Mental Health with A.I. (15 Minutes with the Doctor, Episode #9)

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Tackling Mental Health with A.I. (15 Minutes with the Doctor, Episode #9)

VinayShankarNow in its 10th Episode, 15 Minutes With The Doctor is a podcast by UK-based physician, author and innovator, Dr. Vinay Shankar, where he shares the stories of healthcare entrepreneurs and innovators who are growing their unique ideas. He started this podcast to inspire and promote innovation in the healthcare field so listeners could learn from the successes, mistakes and failures of different players in the digital health space. Each episode unravels a different health-related entrepreneurial story with key strategies, concepts, and actionable insights.

On its 9th episode, Vinay talks to Pouria Mojabi, co-founder of the Paralign app, an AI-powered mental health app which allows users to anonymously journal thoughts and emotions, and then connects them with other users who have expressed similar sentiments. He takes his experience from over a decade in digital health and shares the process behind building this app.

Founding Story

Losing a friend to depression motivated Pouria to go into the mental health space. He had been in the digital health space previously for 10 years, having worked at hospitals, academic institutions and other digital health startups. He and his cofounders think the fundamental issue for digital health platforms is that they don’t understand what users go through emotionally or mentally on a daily basis. Consumer health is hard because of the complexity of human beings..

Pouria says that one of few things working in the mental health space right now are support groups. Friends and family don’t work for a lot of people because of the shame and stigma associated with mental health. People all over the country are driving miles to go to support groups because it gives them hope. It’s this perspective that drove him to create a platform to digitize the support group experience.

What is Paralign?

paralignParalign is an anonymous mood and thought tracker for everyday thoughts and feelings.  

With every thought you record, the “Similar Minds” feature allows you to connect with others who have expressed similar emotions and thought patterns. It then provides mindfulness content, guided meditations, educational videos tailored to your thoughts and moods. It’s like a data-driven forum for mental health and digitized support group, with plans of becoming much more. It is a place where you can feel supported after individual expression, as users get to engage through the different layers of community, content, and educational material to help cope with each personal situation.

After people vent and express themselves freely, the custom-made AI processes different thoughts using graph theory and clustering technology. There is language processing in backend that understands concepts and matches thought patterns based on the expression, connects the user to support resources and similar minds who could share advice for coping.  Support resources could come in the form of a community, educational article or video, suggestion of an on-demand coaching session or a support hotline. This virtual support system enables users to deal with what they are going through anonymously.

This was built with a team of engineers, doctors, therapists, psychologists, and business leaders with decades of digital health experience. The beta version went viral in 2016 and trended on Reddit, the front page of Inc. Magazine and Entrepreneur.com. Bloggers from different countries wrote about the app in Chinese, French, Russian, Croatian, and Spanish. Paralign now has users from 90 different countries.

How is the community managed?

Users can report thoughts, conversations and individual messages to moderators. Moderators will then look at those conversations to ensure they follow community guidelines. Generally, flagged messages are removed in less than a day. Pouria says they notify reported users and remind them of the community guidelines:  

“There’s only one rule, which is that you have to empower other users on the platform.”

Thoughts of suicide or destructive behaviors are also monitored by keywords, and appropriate support resources are sent as needed. Safety is a huge concern and actively monitored, but this not a product built to be a suicide hotline. This app works best as a preventative tool to get users to a healthy, sustainable mindset.

User Demographics

According to Pouria, 70% of the users are male. This may be attributed to how males aren’t encouraged or taught in society to openly express their emotions. Males may also tend to lack the necessary social support networks in place to help cope with difficult emotions.  

Business Model

Pouria explains that the business model:

  1. On Demand Coaching Sessions (1-to-1 and group). Coaches love it because they can host own classes and users don’t have to pay a subscription.
  2. E-courses. Personalized educational e-classes tailored to individual needs and driven by data.

Released a beta in 2016. Wants to translating to other languages including spanish, chinese, french, russian and croatian. 2018 will put MDs on platform and train AI to do comprehensive analysis of health.

The goal is to combine mental health with physical health and offer comprehensive platform for disease prevention.  

The challenge isn’t developing the app, but iterating based on the data. Looking at data and figuring out the next version. Once you figure out what isn’t working, how do you fix it? That’s the fundamental challenge for Pouria and his tea

Many who suffer from mental health also have a deficit in physical health, and physical activity has a major impact on our mental well being. The aim of Paralign to combine physical health with mental health, and offer users a comprehensive analysis of their health. Integrating with your tracking devices (Fitbit, wearables, etc) combine physical health with mental health and offer a whole analysis of health.

Finding Investors for Mental Health

Mental health is a difficult place to get investors, because there is still a lot of stigma in society about the topic. In the U.S., there has not been a significant exit for mental health startups, so fundraising for Paralign has been a challenge. Since no one has really made money from mental health startups, investors are conservative.   

Paralign has managed to find angel investors who saw the vision, traction, growth and potential. So far, Pouria and the team have raised $150,000 in a year and they’re in the process of closing a $500,000 seed round in a few months.  

The most vital thing he took while working on his previous venture was the need to make the right connections. He’s a technical person who doesn’t network much, but it’s critical to get out and meet the right folks:

“If you want to be a founder and raise money for your startup, you have to really push yourself to network and find good connections to help you along the journey.”

Another key lesson was the power and importance of the team, especially in the early stage when you’re talking to angel investors. They assess your team heavily and prototype to minimize their risk. Experience of the teams and knowledge of healthcare is the most important thing.

Advice About Innovating in Digital Health?

Digital health is a space with unique challenges. Pouria has been part of digital startups that tried to go direct-to-consumer but eventually failed. The history of most direct-to-consumer apps is they eventually become B2B to start servicing enterprises. Another factor is that you need more time for digital health companies because change takes longer in the health space than other industries.

He says that patience is essential for digital health entrepreneurs. The standard formula of joining an accelerator for 2-3 months doesn’t work with digital health. You need more money and investors can be conservative because of the unique risks and barriers to market. As many digital health apps or startups are often motivated by a personal cause, Pouria points out that it is important to keep the purpose behind your idea on your mind as a key driving force to move your company ahead. This will not be a straightforward path because humans are nonlinear and you will be working with antique infrastructures and a system that’s making money from sick people. Taking a preventative approach is challenging in a fee-for-service model

Pouria may not know the answer (yet), but he’s determined to keep going:

“We’re not going to stop until we become the platform you to go to for your health. We have a unique angle and we’re not going to stop until we figure out how to become the consumer health platform for everyone.”

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