Digital behavioral health companies have raised billions of dollars, many of which have even become household names.
Most of these startups focus on low acuity conditions like anxiety and moderate depression. But the space for severe mental illness (SMI) may be ripe for innovation. According to SMI Advisor, the economic impact of SMIs exceeds $300 billion per year.
A new nonprofit accelerator called One Mind is looking for new behavioral health start-ups focused on addressing some of the biggest challenges in SMI care.
“I think there are parts of digital solutions that can be really excellent for serious mental illness,” Carmine DiMaro, director of One Mind Accelerator, told Behavioral Health Business. “We’ve talked to a few startups that do peer support and family support education, and the digital model is really great for that. So I think it can really facilitate doing these more high-touch solutions for people.”
Due to the nature of SMI care, there must be both personal resources and a digital component, Pushkar Suresh, chief strategy and science officer at One Mind, told BHB.
“Given the complexity and nature of SMIs, it should always be high-tech combined with high-touch. It can’t be either or,” Suresh said. “We are going to need all the tools in our arsenal to tackle SMIs [with] digital tools, whether it’s monitoring, whether it’s engagement with these online platforms, even some aspects of care delivery. But it will always complement the practical care that is absolutely central to recovering from SMI.”
A number of SMI-focused providers have started integrating new virtual modalities in healthcare. For example, Valera Health, which provides a continuum of mental health services for treating patients with mild to severe conditions, has both virtual and in-person options for patients.
In addition, the digital mental health company Akin focuses on bringing together caregivers of persons with SMI virtually.
While the majority of SMI care takes place in the public sector, Suresh said the private sector could offer a new perspective on innovation in the space.
“I think it can bring the speed that is needed and the deployment of some of this innovation. The academic world can only make it this far,” said Suresh. “But what companies bring is that agility and that real pressure testing of ideas. I think that’s the key role the private sector plays here, and we all need to act here with a sense of urgency.”
The SMI space has also seen a number of new private companies enter the space. Vanna Health, an SMI-focused startup led by former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas Insel and Dr. Giovannia Colella, co-founder of OODA Health, Brightline and Castlight, wants the profitable approach to community-based SMI care.
Insel previously told BHB that being able to demonstrate profitability would allow it to scale up community-based SMI programs.
The private sector is also able to bring new funding into SMI care that exceeds public funds.
“I think last year, venture [firms] put in almost twice the budget of [National Institutes of Health Mental Health] go inside [the sector]’ said Suresh. “That is the power of entrepreneurship. The other thing it brings is new ways to reach people with SMI, new innovations and new mechanisms of … results-based approaches for businesses, where you are compensated for results, not just service delivery.”
The private sector could also help scale new innovation for patients with SMI. This, in turn, could help companies bring their solutions to more people, DiMaro said.
The One Mind Accelerator is now taking applications for its first cohort. The accelerator selects 10 companies to participate in the program and each of the startups will receive a $100,000 investment. The accelerator gets 5% common stock in those companies in return.
However, if a company has already raised significant capital, the team is open to negotiation.
Companies may be targeting a number of different aspects, including artificial intelligence for targeting therapies, psychedelics, metabolic psychiatry, and others.
Participating startups can receive basic support, such as drawing up key performance indicators. The accelerator also helps startup leaders meet stakeholders within the SMI ecosystem, including patients with lived experiences, providers and major payers. Finally, it is designed to support startups with fundraising and connect with investors.
“If you get the right treatment at the right time, the results are visible to everyone,” said Suresh. “The question is: how do you democratize that? And that’s why we launched this accelerator. We believe that businesses are the best ways to democratize access to this gold standard approach.”
While an increasing number of companies in the digital space are looking to cover SMI, there have been concerns about virtual providers in the past. Following public criticism and a Justice Department investigation into its prescribing practices, digital mental health company Cerebral has doubled its goal to treat SMI.
“It’s not the mild to moderate depression, anxiety, patients who use an app to meditate and want to see a health coach every now and then. That’s not where value-based care is really going to take hold,” said Dr. David Mou, CEO of Cerebral, previously told BHB. “It’s going to take effect for the patients who are in and out of hospitals, suicidal, in and out of the emergency room, losing jobs, and because of this they can either be disconnected from care or can’t find care. So we want to focus on that.”
The company came under more fire last week when the Wall Street Journal reported that a minor treated by the company without parental consent had been given an antidepressant with an adolescent warning label. The teenager later died of suicide.