Happify Health’s Gaming-Inspired Mental Health Model Aims to Improve Engagement, Treatment Access

Many companies in the digital behavioral health space pride themselves on being disruptors of the industry, promising efficient delivery of services through virtual means as opposed to the traditional, brick-and-mortar way of business, which often presents roadblocks to care. If you ask the leaders at Happify Health, though, they’ll say they take things one step further, and that their services and model are even more disruptive than others in the pack.

Founded in 2012, New York-based Happify Health provides coaching and therapeutic services to users by way of its digital platform. Those services are self-guided and delivered to users through two core business lines, digital therapeutics — which helps users manage stress, anxiety and depression, along with building leadership skills — and care delivery, which helps people manage chronic conditions. 

On the surface, Happify Health’s services seem very much like those delivered by other behavioral health startups. But it’s how the company’s services are delivered that makes it unique, Happify’s president and co-founder Ofer Leidner told Behavioral Health Business.

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Happify Health uses artificial intelligence to deliver scientifically validated self-guided coaching care.  For those needing additional support, Happify Health refers users to third-party resources.

Happify Health’s services — which are available in 10 languages — are offered direct-to-consumer, as well as through employers, health plans and pharmaceutical entities. More than 5 million people so far have used the Happify platform, and 20 million are covered through benefits plans. 

Happify Health recently scored $73 million in a Series D funding round led by Deerfield Management Company, bumping up the total amount raised by Happify Health to $118.7 million, according to fundraising tracking website Crunchbase.

Behavioral Health Business recently talked with Leidner about how Happify Health plans to use the new funding, why he’s high on AI in behavioral health, where his history in gaming comes into play and more. 

You can read the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity and length.

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BHB: Talk about the history of Happify Health and how it came to be the provider it is today.

Leidner: We founded the company in 2012 with the strong belief that there’s a lot of work to be done in driving outcomes around behavioral health.

My cofounder, [Happify CEO Tomer Ben-Kiki], and I — prior to this company — were founders of a fairly large casual games company. We came to health care from a very non-traditional background. We understand technology, we understand user engagement and behavior change, but [we did not understand] health care. We had a very strong sense that if you can drive behavior through digital solutions and apply behavioral interventions, you can really engage many patients towards a healthier life.

The foundational belief we have with this platform is that … the best way to engage patients … is through addressing … stress, anxiety and depression, as well as other diseases that are often comorbid with mental health. If you’re thinking about the big disease areas, there’s always a mental health component.

Happify Health’s two core services lines are with digital therapeutics and care delivery. Can you talk more about Happify’s behavioral health offerings across both of those areas?

We have a platform that allows [us] to build solutions for specific therapeutic areas. We have robust solutions that are offered today to large self-insured employers and health plans addressing health needs in behavioral health. By offering a self-care solution that addresses elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression, we’re able to provide … [a] high quality self-care solution that has robust evidence and clinical outcomes.

The approach that we’re taking [with care delivery] is to focus mostly on chronic conditions, … specifically with diseases that are comorbid with behavioral health.

For example, we have care delivery … for skin disorders [like] psoriasis. Patients that deal with moderate to severe forms … often … walk around with social anxiety and depressive symptoms, and we want to help them address those symptoms as they move their care forward.

Demand is out there. We think that if you take evidence-based science and figure out how to engage patients into those clinical, evidence-based protocols, you can deliver very robust outcomes.

We think that software-based self-care modalities — which are driven by an AI coach that understands your needs, then on the fly prescribes the right interventions for you — are the way to go to solve some of the scale challenges that exist in this market.

We don’t think that psychiatry is ever going away. The magnitude of the crisis we’re dealing with [in mental health] is only increasing. Augmentation of those scarce resources with software [can] deliver good clinical outcomes.

There are tons of different digital behavioral health providers on the market. What makes Happify different?

When you look at the 300,000 or so health care applications out there, most … fail the challenge of engagement and sustained retention. If you measure them a week after a user downloads, most applications are just not used. The engagement is horrible.

Coming from the [gaming industry] we have cracked a unique combination of user experience that drives engagement, sustained retention and robust clinical outcomes. We do it on a software-basis only. We have services that are connecting … into other care modalities, but we’re specializing in the most robust, heavily-tested self-care applications.

Can you provide more insight on Happify’s work in the area of comorbid conditions, and how it fits into the larger behavioral health care landscape?

We’ve announced partnerships to develop solutions around autoimmune skin disorders. We know that stress is a trigger for flare ups. If we can help people address stress [and anxiety], … we will actually see outcomes. Same goes with oncology [and] endocrine-related diseases. That’s how we see ourselves evolving as a company.

Although Happify’s service delivery model is not dependent on mental health professionals, how might they come into the mix?

We partner with networks and can refer [users] as needed, but our core approach is open [and] configurable. If you have a network that you really like in Colorado, and they [deal]… with substance abuse, [we can] bring them on. That’s a very different approach than some other companies in the digital space that are taking what we call a “closed-stack approach.”

Nobody wants to be limited in innovation or quality. You want to have quality providers, no matter if this in-person [or] telemedicine. You want the ability to measure quality and optimize the overall care journey, some of which will be done digitally, some in-person. Those are capabilities that a good digital platform allows you to achieve.

As Happify expands, would the company consider building an in-house network of coaches and therapists to supplement its AI-driven services?

For certain markets that we’re active in — specifically the employer markets — we have service offerings around coaching, which could be our own coaches in that market. When it comes to the payer market that we work with, the providers often like their own coaches, and we will plug our platform into their own coaching services. We’re very bullish [on] AI coaching and … some human coaches when needed to help drive the experience.

Many studies have shown a rise in stress, anxiety and depression since the beginning of the pandemic. Has this had a demonstrable effect on the company, as far as more people seeking out Happify’s services?

[There] has been … an unprecedented increase in demand. When people couldn’t see their therapist, they approached them through telemedicine and teletherapy. I think anyone in this category has seen significant growth in business as a result of this pandemic.

It’s been a hard year for everyone. And mental health, which is often now referred to as a second pandemic, has hit hard. When it comes to our services, we’ve seen growth almost double in the number of covered lives … which is a reflection of our partners expanding access to services. My hope is that when we get out of this pandemic is that we have solved [for] challenges around stigma and access.

How do you intend to use your recently raised funding, and what are your future plans?

With more funding comes more expectations, and more people that you can disappoint if you don’t deliver on your vision. I take this [recent] funding with a great sense of responsibility and excitement about the task ahead.

We plan to double our staff this year. There’s a lot of scale that needs to happen in the organization. We have shareholders that have been on this journey with us and are expecting us not only to build a fantastic mission, but also to generate returns.

Right now, the main focus that we have is improving our services, getting more users … on the platform and driving value.

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