San Francisco-based seed fund investment firm Rock Health recently held Rock Health Rounds, an event for practicing physicians, to preview some of its healthcare startups.
Rock Health’s startups aim to change the way healthcare operates — including diseases such as obesity and care coordination within geriatrics. The nonprofit organization, based San Francisco’s booming Mission Bay neighborhood, partners with institutions such as UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) and Harvard Medical School; healthcare industry stalwarts GE, UnitedHealth Group, and Genentech; as well as other venture capital and investment firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.
Several of Rock Health’s startups have launched or will launch mobile applications. ThriveOn, for instance, aims to bring psychotherapy to a wider audience via cognitive behavior therapy principles. We interviewed Alejandro Foung from ThriveOn about his team’s mental healthcare app. As CEO, Alejandro Foung has worked in business development for Trulia, WizeCommerce, and Huddler. Drawing from his background in psychology and economics from Stanford University, Foung is spearheading this venture with Rock Health with co-founder Nicholas Letourneau and clinical psychologist Megan Jones PsyD.
What inspired you and Nick to launch on ThriveOn?
[Mental health is] the black sheep of healthcare. It’s pretty taboo. There’s a lot of stigma around this. I was a psychology major at Stanford, and [in] high school I thought I wanted to do psychology for the rest of my life. I then realized I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist. I worked at consumer technology for 8 or 9 years, at eBay, NexTab (a comparison shopping site), and Trulia. I…met my cofounder there.
When Trulia had its IPO, Nick and I just took a step back and thought we’d have a opportunity since we have more wiggle room to start our own thing. We were fascinated in the behavioral health area. We did a bunch of interviews with people who we thought were doing behavior change in real life and thought about how we could build something in real life with the needs with real people. We interviewed tons of people across multiple disciplines. The people who were the most passionate and [have] the most need is mental health. [We ultimately were awarded] a $4M NIMH [(National Institutes of Mental Health, part of the NIH)] grant last August.
So what can ThriveOn do?
[ThriveOn can] broadly disseminate prevention and mental healthcare using CBT [(Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)]. You can license this program that has been shown with good results [with a] 50% reduction in disordered eating behavior. It’s a specific program that targets body image for subclinical eating disorders. There is a proven efficacy as face-to-face [therapy, with] 1/10 the cost and 1/5 of a therapist’s time. That’s incredibly powerful.
Our research partners are at Stanford and Washington University in St. Louis. They are the principal investigators on the grant and we provide the technology. We have disseminated it to 30 universities across the country: 15 get the program, and 15 are controls.
That’s very strong. But 30 different universities can be quite diverse.
The way we control is that we control for demographics, geography, and then randomize the interventions. It’s a three-year study, and we’re one year in.
One of the issues with psychiatric applications is that very few people are aware of them. How are you getting this app distributed and marketed?
[ThriveOn] is for students, and the counseling centers for the universities are our distribution channel. Stigma, access, and cost are primary issues. Because we have an affordable solution that’s evidenced-based and easy to do, we have good traction. We haven’t done much PR and we already have 3,000 [users]. We were on SXSW and was voted top health startup. We’ll actually be announcing our funding and a few other things in September.
Besides eating disorders, what other areas does your intervention address?
This is kind of an entry to do CBT bigger and better, and address more subclinical issues in mental health. Our product is an online assessment that uses GAD-4 [(for generalized anxiety disorder)] and PHQ-9 [(patient health questionnaire, for screening depression)] and other standardized assessments in key areas: mood, anxiety, stress, sleep, social, and body image. As far as where [our product caters to] the spectrum of needs, our sweet spot is subclinical. [Our clients are] people who want to improve their emotional wellness, which is subclinical in psychiatry.
And then we can customize the program to tailor it to [the user’s] needs and give them these programs that are delivered via mobile phone. [The program is comprised of] 10 to 15 minutes of assessment, tracking [tools], and connections to a licensed therapist, MFT or LCSW. [Users can access] a dashboard of their interaction with the program, getting text messages, feedback, and follow-up as they finish every week. The results we have show are [drawn from] the body image program. It reduced [patients’] eating behavior and they’ve maintained [healthy] behaviors for the entire 2 years. Using 1/5th of therapist’s time and 1/10th of the cost. That’s the basis for our whole business: to address a population that’s typically underserved, but in an affordable way that’s 1/4 of the cost
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about ThriveOn?
One thing we want to do is get more coaches. We’re looking for licensed therapists to be part of our network. Half a dozen people every day are applying to be our coaches, and we’re not even advertising this. People are interested in providing sservices … and it’s asynchronous, so you can do this in between or time… 10-25% of [a therapist’s] time is unbillable because of no-shows and cancellations. You can do ThriveOn in those moments. [Plus, therapists can do this from home:] 99% of the care providers are female in our network; 25% are wanting to work from home because of their family.
The second thing is we are working on with Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The idea is that 60% of the people going into primary care have some sort of mental health need, but [primary care providers] don’t have anywhere to send them. They could send them [to ThriveOn] because [it’s] easy and affordable. So, the ideal goal is for us to connect with some physicians, primary care ideally, who are seeing lots of people every year, and to start recommending ThriveOn.
When will your product fully launch?
To try ThriveOn, take the assessment at thriveon.com. ThriveOn invites readers to be part of the beta test, which they anticipate to deploy in August.