Photograph of a person wearing a virtual reality VR headset standing in front of a wall casting a silhouette

Global mental health investment tops £500m, with groundbreaking healthtech solutions offering patients new ways to receive therapy — Stella Jacob | Unsplash

Three of Europe’s top mental health startups tackling wellbeing issues plus advice for startup founders

The COVID-19 pandemic is significantly impacting people’s mental health. In response to this, the Mental Health Foundation has themed this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week to promote acts of kindness. From 18th to 24th May 2020 the UK charity encouraged people to reach out to others with positive messages and tips for coping with social isolation and the impact of the global pandemic. 

Indeed, while it is not possible to meet up in-person and share ideas and recommendations, there are alternative means of communication available. Below are three of Europe’s trailblazing mental health startups embracing technological solutions to combat psychological distress and encourage wellbeing.

Spill: the all-in-one mental health plugin for Slack

Founded in London in 2017, Spill provides remote emotional support to employees via the messaging platform Slack. Once the plugin is installed, it messages company staff asking them four questions to spot those in need of emotional support. From there, staff can access sessions with Spill’s qualified therapists as well as use their tools and exercises or ask a therapist questions.

Co-founder Gavin Dhesi highlights the distinction between apps designed to be a nice touch and those that are solving real-world issues. While offering up advice to other startup founders, he explains that: “Make sure your product is solving a real problem and isn’t just ‘nice to have.’ The only way to see if your product is solving a real problem is to get people to pay real money for it. Try approaching a fund that focuses on social good (like Bethnal Green Ventures). Look for angel investors with specific interest or experience (either personal or professional) in mental health. Be prepared to have 50 plus meetings and for the process to take over four months.”

To date, the startup has raised £650,000 and has 30 businesses on its books. A total of 1,200 users are currently engaging their services with some 80 per cent never accessing mental health support services before using Spill. Looking ahead, the company is recruiting an international team of therapists before launching in North America. Spill plans to be available in 300 countries by the end of 2020.

Meru Health: the complete, clinically-proven treatment for depression, anxiety and burnout

Meru Health offers “a holistic mental health solution” that’s proven to improve people’s wellbeing. The smartphone app puts users in touch with a therapist before providing them with a 12-week personalised therapeutic course. The app includes a heart rate variability monitor (HRV) which enables users to do deep breathing exercises during sessions and receive real-time feedback.

Co-founder Kristian Ranter underlines the importance of defining their product and service while ensuring that it is effective and safe for users. Advising fellow startup founders, he says: “Do your clinical research and prove that what you are building is effective, safe and feasible. It’s important to differentiate yourself and define your focus so that investors understand how different you are.”

Meru Health was founded in Helsinki, Finland in 2016 and has raised $13.3 million to date. The app has successfully treated 700 patients and the team is collaborating with Stanford Medicine and Stanford Health Care, California to produce clinical studies that will improve mental health understanding and aid treatment.

Psylaris: virtual reality therapy sessions

Psylaris provides patients with personalised therapy without the need for a therapist on the other side of the (virtual) room. The startup supplements face-to-face sessions with a mental health counsellor and independent sessions via a virtual reality (VR) headset. Their first service is designed to treat those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through VR-enabled empowering experiences.

Mike Verhiel, Chief Executive Officer, explains how beneficial VR technology is to treat mental health conditions. He explains that: “Yes, the human factor in a therapist-patient relationship is very important, but technology is not taking that away. It is making sure there is more time for exactly that. Getting started was definitely the biggest hurdle.”

Offering up advice to other startup founders, Mr Verhiel says: “Have a mission and truly believe in it. It is tough to get your first customers, tough to create a working product, and near right impossible to find funding as there are other markets with higher return on investments but this sector is one of the most fulfilling.”

Psylaris was founded in Maastricht in the Netherlands in 2017. To date, it has raised €110,000 and is present in the Netherlands and Belgium. Looking ahead, the company plans to expand internationally this year as well as build up their body of evidence for their mental health support products.

Mental health startups are attracting more attention from investors and more traction among users now than ever before with worldwide investments surpassing £500m. Indeed, the unprecedented conditions brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic have made the technology-driven services of mental health startups such as Spill, Meru Health and Psylaris critical for people’s wellbeing during lockdown and social distancing.