Digital behavioral health companies have raised billions of dollars, with many even becoming household names.
The bulk of these startups focus on low-acuity conditions like anxiety and moderate depression. But the serious mental illness (SMI) space may be ripe for innovation. The economic impact of SMIs is more than $300 billion every year, according to SMI Advisor.
A new nonprofit accelerator dubbed One Mind Accelerator is looking to incubate new behavioral health startups focused on tackling some of the biggest challenges in SMI care.
“I do think that there are parts of digital solutions that can actually be really excellent for serious mental illness,” Carmine DiMaro, director of One Mind Accelerator, told Behavioral Health Business. “We’ve been talking to a few startups that are doing peer support and family support education, and the digital model is really great for that. So I think it can actually facilitate doing these more high-touch solutions for people.”
Due to the nature of SMI care, there needs to be both in-person resources as well as a digital component, Pushkar Suresh Joshi, chief strategy and science officer at One Mind Accelerator, told BHB.
“Given the complexity and the nature of SMIs, it’s always got to be high tech combined with high touch. It can’t be either or,” Joshi said. “We are going to require all the tools in our arsenal to address SMIs [with] digital tools, whether it’s monitoring, whether it is engagement on these online platforms, even some aspects of delivery of care. But it will always be in complement with the hands-on care that is absolutely central to recovering from SMI.”
A number of SMI-focused providers have begun to integrate new virtual modalities into care. For example, Valera Health, which offers a continuum of mental health services treating patients with mild to severe conditions, has both virtual and in-person options for patients.
Additionally, digital mental health company Akin is focused on bringing together the caregivers of individuals with SMI virtually.
While the majority of SMI care happens in the public sector, Joshi said that the private sector could offer a new perspective on innovation in the space.
“I think it can bring the speed that is required and deployment of some of this innovation. Academia can only take it so far,” Joshi said. “But what companies bring is that agility and that real-world pressure testing of ideas. I think that’s the key role that the private sector plays here, and we all need to act with a sense of urgency here.”
The SMI space has also seen a number of new private companies getting into 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, is looking to bring the for-profit approach to community-based SMI care.
Insel previously told BHB that being able to prove profitability could allow community-based SMI programs to scale.
The private sector is also able to bring new funding into SMI care that suprasses public funds.
“I think last year, venture [firms] put in almost 2 times the budget of [National Institutes of Health Mental Health] into [the sector],” Joshi said. “That’s the power of venture. The other thing that it brings is new ways of reaching people with SMI, new innovations and new mechanisms of … outcomes-based approaches for businesses, where you are getting compensated for outcomes, not just delivery of service.”
The private sector could also help scale new innovation for patients with SMI. In turn, this 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 will select 10 companies to participate in its program, and each of the startups will receive a $100,000 investment. The accelerator, in exchange, will get 5% common stock equity in those companies.
However, if a company has already raised a substantial amount of capital, the team is open to negotiations.
Companies may be focusing on a number of different aspects including artificial intelligence for targeting therapies, psychedelics, metabolic psychiatry and others.
Participating startups will be able to get foundational support, such as setting up key performance indicators. The accelerator will also help startup leaders meet stakeholders within the SMI ecosystem, including patients with lived experiences, providers and major payers. Lastly, it is designed to support startups with fundraising and connecting to investors.
“When you get the right treatment at the right time, the results are there for everybody to see,” Joshi said. “The question is, how do you democratize that? And that’s why we launched this accelerator. We believe that companies are the best ways to democratize access to this gold standard approach.”
Although an increasing number of companies in the digital space are looking to treat SMI, there have been concerns about virtual providers in the past. Following public criticism and a Department of Justice investigation over its prescribing practices, digital mental health company Cerebral has doubled down on its aim to treat SMI.
“It’s not the mild to moderate depression, anxiety, patients who use an app for meditation and want to see a health coach every once in a while. That’s not where value-based care is really going to take hold,” Dr. David Mou, CEO of Cerebral, previously told BHB. “It’s going to take hold for the patients who are in and out of hospitals, suicidal, in and out of emergency rooms, losing jobs, and because of this they can either be disconnected from care or can’t find care. So that’s where we want to focus.”
The company came under more heat last week when the Wall Street Journal reported that a minor treated by the company without parental consent had been prescribed an antidepressant with a warning label for adolescents. The teen later died of suicide.