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AI platform for mental health Wysa raises $20 million in funding

Wysa, a popular mental health app originally founded in India around an AI chatbot that helps users talk through their feelings, has raised $20 million in a Series B funding round to expand its business on the heels of hitting 4.5 million users in 65 countries.

The all-equity round is led by India’s digital health-focused venture capital fund HealthQuad, with participation also from British International Investment (BII), the U.K.’s development finance institution. The plan will be to use the money to double down on its home market as well as the U.S. and U.K, where it already has respectively had approvals from the FDA and the National Health Service (NHS) and is used by the latter as part of its online mental health services. Originally built to work in English, Wysa will use some of the investment also to widen multilingual support. The team currently has 100–150 people.

Previous backers have included both Amazon and Google (who invest by way of their digital assistant funds), and Wysa prior to this round had raised $9.4 million. It’s not disclosing valuation.

To date, Wysa has served over 400 million conversations to 4.5 million users in 65 countries, and its rise speaks not just to the stresses of life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic but to the lack of resources for many to deal with that.

“The demand for mental health, as you can imagine, is exploding,” said Ramakant Vempati, co-founder, Wysa, in an interview with TechCrunch. “The number of mental health professionals is just not enough to meet that demand.”

The executive added that in India, the country of 1.3 billion people where Wysa is based, less than 10,000 people are trained in the mental health profession. He also noted that the proportions are similar in other parts of the world. In the U.K., the NHS has a waitlist of six to 12 months, Vempati said.

“Typically, access to a mental health service is gated. It is restricted by some kind of diagnosis — saying only if you are severe enough you will be able to get to speak to a therapist because obviously therapy is expensive and somebody’s got to pay for it,” he said.

In contrast, he noted that the app offers “early engagement and a safe space where people can come in and anonymously just talk about what’s bothering them.”

“That encourages people to come forward,” the executive mentioned.

Wysa, which has operations in Bengaluru, Boston and London, is marketed as a solution to bridge that gap.

Conceptualized in 2016, after CEO and co-founder Jo Aggarwal fell into a deep depression, the app offers a range of therapeutic techniques to users.

Vempati underlined that Wysa works as a three-state solution. The first part of it is available to the masses as an AI chat offering, whereas its second piece is more structured help that is coming from human beings including coaches, counselors and therapists on staff. The third part, he said, is what the company calls clinical programs.

In simpler words, smartphone users can access Wysa as a mental health app under a freemium model, while employers including Accenture, Colgate-Palmolive, Aetna International and Swiss Re are offering its support through their existing employee benefits including Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).

Healthcare providers including the U.K.’s NHS as well as authorities including the Ministry of Health in Singapore, on the other hand, are also using Wysa as a solution for a large number of the public in their countries.

Vempati told TechCrunch that about 80% of Wysa’s business comes from enterprise customers.

“Enterprise and B2B will become increasingly more important going forward for both commercial growth as well as impact,” he said, adding that the B2C model has historically driven a majority of Wysa’s market impact.

“The needs for Wysa are present all across, from high-income to low-income countries,” said Charles Antoine-Janssen, chief investment officer, HealthQuad, in a statement. “Mental health triaging of patients using AI which is fast, effective and non-stigmatising for patients living in unaccepting societies answers a huge need in India, the rest of low-income Asia, Africa as well as the wealthiest countries of the world.”

Wysa also has development a wellness component: It guides users through cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT) alongside regular meditation, breathing and mindfulness exercises and micro-actions to help address their mental health problems.

“We did a lot of clinical trials and created some very strong outcomes on patients or people who have chronic pain and are struggling,” he said.

In May, Wysa received the Breakthrough Device Designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The status is meant to emphasize that the solution is “more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions.”

Vempati said that the FDA’s recognition is a “signalling power” for the app.

“It is the inherent confidence about the quality of the product and what we have built,” he said.

The achievement is, though, not FDA’s clearance to allow Wysa to be prescribed as a medical solution.

Nevertheless, Vempati said that the signalling coming through the Breakthrough Device Designation has opened “lots of commercialization pathways” that the company is exploring at this moment.

In March last year, Wysa became one of the 17 apps to come under the Google Investment Programme. It also raised $5.5 million in a Series A funding round led by Boston’s W Health Ventures that also included an investment from the Google Assistant Investment Program, alongside pi Ventures and Kae Capital.

On the nature of the relationship between Google and Wysa, Vempati emphasized that it was largely about building the app with smooth Google integrations in mind.

“New features, new ways of making the app experience better, what Google is doing and releasing, helping us leverage that to help users better,” he noted.

Google’s backing is also helping Wysa explore voice-based experiences. The company is also a part of the AWS Accelerator in the U.K. that is helping it to look at integrating Alexa, alongside Google Assistant.

However, Vempati indicated that integrating voice support is currently at a “very early stage.”

“I want to scale impact. Right now where we are, we are at a good place, but we can do so much more,” he said.

Wysa is also working on how to keep a premium on user privacy while scaling its mental health support services. That’s been a tricky area for it so far, after it was highlighted by Mozilla in a report earlier this year that also singled out some of Wysa’s competitors for being lax on privacy.

The company wants to use the fresh investment to build new partnerships, improve and enhance the product, and go beyond English and introduce new languages, Vempati mentioned.

“Through our investment in Wysa, BII is taking a holistic approach to supporting long-term productive economic prosperity by backing an innovative tech-enabled company that is increasing access to mental health services for low-income and rural individuals,” said Srini Nagarajan, MD and head of Asia at British International Investment. TechCrunch

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