The mental wellness tech boom

by Rina Raphael

Investment banker Stephen Hays nearly died after attempting suicide in Las Vegas. (“I booked a room at the Cosmopolitan solely because they had balconies,” he recounts.)

So when he got out of rehab in 2018, he had a new perspective on, well, everything. 

For one, he had reexamined his decades-long struggle with addiction through the lens of a new diagnosis, bipolar disorder. But Hays, 39, was also debating his own role within the financial community, rethinking his entire career and life’s purpose. He realized there was a venture fund for everything on the market—healthcare, tech, etc.—but not one strictly focused on something that affects everyone: mental health.

So Hays founded What If Ventures, a VC fund investing in early-stage startups centered on mental health and addiction recovery solutions. Today, it counts more than 250 limited partners. He also launched a podcast called Stigma in which entrepreneurs and thought leaders share their own mental health journey. (It’s taped over 30 episodes to date.)

“I want to help others. I need to help others,” says Hays. “It's part of how I maintain my wellness.”

In January, I wrote a report on the explosion of the mental wellness tech sector. This covered everything from therapist-on-demand platforms to virtual reality therapy, with plenty of “emotion-sensing” wearables and chatbots in between. 

In fact, there are now nearly 10,000 mental health apps with some fascinating stuff out there: an app called SuperBetter gamifies mental health upkeep (a million people have played so far). Then there’s Mindstrong, which analyzes users’ interaction with their phones—how they type or scroll—to identify mood states (It is now being tested on California patients through the state’s public mental health system.)

Hays took it one step further by actually mapping the funding in this rapidly growing category, which now counts 899 mental health startups and 862 investors. Q1 alone saw “an extreme increase in funding” with $462 million across 30 transactions. And in the wake of COVID-19, many mental health companies and meditation apps are seeing record sign-ups and engagement, with some reporting 15x month-over-month growth. 

Several are also giving back: Talkspace is donating free therapy to medical workers, while Hims & Hers just announced free-of-charge group therapy sessions.

Currently, mental health is often considered a subsidiary of the greater health industry, though Hays thinks it ought to be the other way around: Our mind drives everything, he stresses. Our physical health, relationships, work—it’s all dependent on how we feel and think. As health and wellness grows ever more important, Hays predicts that it will ultimately funnel more funding (and attention) to mental health initiatives. 

“I think the interest is just getting started,” notes Hays.

One major hurdle Hays specifically hopes to tackle? Testing. “We really don't have any great tools for measuring mental health relative to physical health,” he explains. “Identifying the biomarkers and then developing those tools is an area that I'm extremely interested in.” 

That, and building affordable solutions at scale—no easy feat considering widespread shortages of mental health professionals. To that end, Hays champions leveraging existing resources, i.e, peer-to-peer platforms “that don't look like social networks, but look more like true genuine connectivity around authentic sharing and relationships.” A great example of this is Israeli startup Wisdo, which connects individuals struggling with mental conditions and those going through difficult emotional situations.

(I have, of course, also shared reservations and issues with the mental health tech category.)

There's more demand for mental health services than ever before, says Hays, noting great strides in reducing stigma (like celebrities publicly sharing their experiences). It’s now also in the national conversation as home-bound Americans increasingly navigate anxiety, depression, and stress.

“Once more people start talking about mental health, it becomes normal,” says Hays. “And as people want to get well, we're going to need far more digital solutions.”

Read What If Ventures’ full report on startup funding. And here’s my report on innovation within mental wellness tech.


In other news: I’m writing a book! I finalized a book deal with Holt (Macmillan Publishers) for The Gospel of Wellness, an exploration of the wellness industry, its role in women's lives, and the forces that gave rise to the phenomenon—and could ultimately bring it down. Keep an eye out come Summer 2021.

Rina Raphael

Some solid COVID-19 resources:

  • Pantry cooking recipes + tips from top chefs (Cooking in Quarantine)

  • Full list of streaming fitness platforms + workouts (GNI)

  • Music and playlists to work to (Flow State)

  • Relaxing books and TV Shows (GNI)

News & Trends:

ClassPass reduces staff in half: It, like many other appointment-based companies, saw business dry up due to the coronavirus lockdown. (CNBC)

Bidet startup Tushy sees 10x demand, scales up: Thinx founder Miki Agrawal’s new company is profiting from the toilet paper shortage. (TechCrunch)

Petition to make Dr. Fauci People’s Sexiest Man Alive gains traction: Please, it’s Cuomo and Cuomo only. (

This startup wants to ensure shoppers keep their distance from one another: Using pre-existing cameras in stores, CYou Retail Ltd. developed technology capable of identifying social distancing in public spaces and stores. (Calcalistech)

Meanwhile, OpenTable will now take supermarket shopping reservations: You can choose a vacant time slot or join a waitlist at partnered markets and other essential businesses. (The Verge)

Alcohol sales way up: We’re all drinking our boredom away. (Bloomberg)

Etsy has some reminders for homemade cloth-mask sellers: Basically, stop suggesting your paisley-print bandana medically prevents infection. (The Verge)

CVS launches drive-through COVID-19 testing: CVS hopes to perform up to 1,000 tests per day, starting with Georgia and Rhode Island. (CNBC)

Coronavirus predicted to cause the biggest beauty decline in 60 years: Cosmetics and toiletries industry set for a 2.5% decline for 2020. (WWD)

Jane Fonda relaunches her workout videos: Of course, it’s on TikTok. (CNN)

How do wellness brands seize opportunities without looking predatory? According to Facebook’s ad library, several brands started to advertise products related to the immune system starting last month. (Glossy)

How Nike is surviving the retail apocalypse: When the virus sparked store closures across China, Nike embraced a hard pivot to digital sales and marketing. (MRKR)

Yeast and baking powder top shoppers’ lists: That’s because baking is wellness now. (NPR / Elemental)

Demand for remote care spikes: A while back I profiled TytoCare, an at-home diagnostic kit that allows for virtual care visits. It’s now partnered with Best Buy and ramping up its remote care platform. (No Camels / FastCo)

Deeper dives:

Here’s why your dreams are all so crazy and vivid these days
Are you remembering every detail of that dream in which a shirtless Jeff Goldblum jumps out of a homemade sourdough bread and starts stealing your canned chickpea stash? Don’t worry, it’s normal for these times. A 2010 study found that vivid, bizarre, and emotionally intense dreams (i,e., the ones you’re more likely to remember) “has to do with strong activation of the limbic system governing dread and rage.”

You’re certainly not alone: A recent survey found that 22% of respondents reported worse sleep quality during the coronavirus quarantine because of fears or stress. (InStyle)

Coronavirus is a disaster for feminism
“One of the most striking effects of the coronavirus will be to send many couples back to the 1950s,” warns Helen Lewis, who pinpoints women’s independence as a silent victim of the pandemic. “What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after—this unpaid caring labor—will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.” (The Atlantic)

Our health is in danger. Wellness wants to fill the void.
As expected, many will be taking a magnifying glass to wellness rituals in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown. Granted, this sector has always come under scrutiny, but now we’re at the point where these products (ahem, CBD oils) will really be put to the test, undoubtedly leading to a heaping amount of criticism. Consider it a new era for wellness-bashing.

“Health care remains a pricey commodity in America, but now wealthy people have co-opted ‘self-care’ as a status symbol,” writes Amanda Hess. “They have the ability to appear not just healthy but radiantly well. Now, as the health care system flails in its coronavirus response—with basic needs like tests, masks and ventilators terrifyingly scarce—the promises of strange elixirs and fine powders feel more deranged and seductive than ever.” (NYT)

Quote of the week:

“... It’s invariably about dishes. ‘You didn’t do the dishes!’ Or ‘You didn’t help with the dishes!’ I think that is being screamed all over the world now.” — Larry David in quarantine (NYT)

Tweet of the week: 

This one’s courtesy of my husband Eric, who suddenly has 101 opinions on how I chop onions.

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