The opportunity ‘is huge’: Why tech developers are trying to tackle mental health

SAN FRANCISCO — Here in the technology epicenter of the world, developers are increasingly writing code and launching products to try to disrupt yet another field: mental health.

Even as big tech players have conquered the markets in industries like transportation and lodging, they’ve largely steered clear of mental health treatment. Now, however, with an influx of funding, companies are revamping pills with digital sensors, designing virtual reality worlds to treat addiction and other conditions, and building chatbots for interactive therapy.

The excitement in the field was apparent this week at the inaugural Anxiety Tech summit, a day of TED-Talk-style speeches that felt much like any of the other hackathons and demo days that clutter the calendar here. The venue was scattered with signs that trumpeted the event’s unusual mission: “Inspiring developers to build for mental health.”

The summit drew 150 attendees both from small startups and Silicon Valley giants including Apple and Google, according to co-organizer Kari Ferguson, a writer who has blogged about her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

When it comes to bringing technology to mental health, the opportunity “is huge,” said Nicolas Rosencovich, CEO and co-founder of a startup called MindCotine. The company, which set up a booth at the summit, is developing a smartphone-powered virtual reality program for nicotine addiction that it plans to soon start marketing to corporate wellness programs in the U.S.

In the first half of this year, startups working on behavioral health collectively raised $273 million — more than in any prior six-month period on record, according to a recent report from the digital health venture firm Rock Health. More than half of the 15 companies that brought in that funding are working on products that are virtual or on-demand.

Among the companies funded this year: the telepsychiatry startup Regroup Therapy and Woebot Labs, which is working on a mental health services chatbot branded as “Your charming robot friend who is ready to listen, 24/7.”

Entrepreneurs pointed to a number of factors driving the surge in investment and activity. The cost of virtual reality and other hardware has plummeted, while the technical quality of the technology has improved. And the stigma around mental health is lessening as conversations about mental illness move into the mainstream.

Still, it’s not clear whether insurers and employers will be willing to pay for these products, especially with a relatively thin track record of evidence. There are big regulatory question marks as many companies seeking to treat or manage mental health conditions market their products as an unregulated wellness play.

Another problem: “Some of these things are overkill,” said Amber Case, a researcher who studies the impact of technology on culture. While she’s pleased to see more commercial activity to develop tech for mental health, some applications don’t seem likely to help, she said. Case points to the example of an smartphone alert telling users to drink water: It might interrupt them in the wrong situation, or when they don’t have water handy. And it could make them feel guilty that they haven’t hydrated enough, spurring more anxiety.

Despite all the obstacles, entrepreneurs and investors see a wide-open field.

“Nobody’s won in mental health yet,” said Jonathan Sockell, chief operating officer of Limbix, a startup gearing up to start selling its virtual reality goggles to mental health clinics, hospitals, and rehab clinics. Among the company’s VR programs is an exposure therapy for patients with phobias or trauma associated with driving. While patients strap on the headset, clinicians can work with them to introduce different conditions (a clear or rainy day) or different road situations (a bridge or a tunnel or blind left turns).

Both large pharma stalwarts and new startups are also trying to bring new technology to the medicines used to treat mental illness.

The Japanese drug maker Otsuka Pharmaceutical and its Silicon Valley partner Proteus Digital Health last November got marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the first so-called digital pill, designed to alert your doctor when you swallow it. The pill is an upgraded version of Abilify, the antipsychotic long approved treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

A San Francisco startup called Kick plans to soon start selling a cardiac drug meant to be popped like a mint to people anxious about public speaking and first dates. The company intends to launch its telemedicine platform this quarter, according to Justin Ip, Kick’s founder and CEO.

In many cases, the new technology being brought to mental health carries with it the cultural quirks of Silicon Valley.

Consider one of the exhibitors at this week’s summit: a virtual reality startup with the creatively misspelled name Happinss. The company, which licenses its virtual reality programs to employer wellness programs to try to monitor and reduce stress, set up a table at the event to display its VR headsets. Plopped on the floor below were two neon green and blue beanbags, for people to lounge in while trying out the VR experience.

“Part of the solution is to have beanbags on site,” co-founder Wang-Tsu Liu explained.

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