AI-powered mental health chatbot Wysa raises $20 million

Wysa, developer of an AI-based mental health messaging tool, has raised $20 million in Series B funding to expand its presence in the US, UK and India, co-founder Ramakant Vempathy told Axios exclusively.

Why it matters: Digital behavioral health companies have seen an increase in investor interest as the demand for mental health support dramatically outpaces the supply of trained professionals.

Deal details: HealthQuad led Wysa’s round and was joined by British International Investment.

  • Insiders including W Health Ventures, Kae Capital, Google Assistant Investments and pi Ventures also joined.

🐧 How it works: Wysa uses conversational AI β€” in the form of a friendly penguin β€” to guide users through exercises based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based form of treatment for depression and other disorders.

  • The tool can also refer users to other behavioral health services or crisis support, and Vempati emphasizes, β€œThis is not crisis support; it is entirely conceived as a wellness service.”
  • In addition to its DTC offering, Wysa has a B2B offering that serves clients including Accenture, Colgate-Palmolive, Aetna International, Swiss Re, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and Singapore’s Ministry of Health.

Yes, but: Wysa does not facilitate individual therapy sessions; instead, it provides a chatbot that guides people through mental health exercises.

  • While that’s a potential boon amid staff shortages, it also limits the depth and range of services it can provide, academics and investors told Axios.
  • Woebot, a San Francisco-based maker of mental health chatbots, takes a similar approach. Woebot’s last major fundraising in 2021 valued the company at $230 million.

By the numbers: Wysa has 4.5 million users in 65 countries, Vempati says.

  • The company’s revenue has doubled this year compared to last year and is on track to double again this year, he adds.
  • A small, Wysa-sponsored study published in 2018 in JMIR mHealth suggested that the app helped reduce participants’ symptoms of depression, but noted that more research is needed to validate the findings. (Wysa is currently working on more studies with the NHS and others.)

Current status: Investor dollars have poured into several such companies in the past six months.

  • Brightside, which virtually connects people with therapists, raised $50 million in Series B funding in March.

  • Concert Health, which partners with medical groups to triage patients for mental health support, raised $42 million in Series B funding in April.
  • Bicycle Health, a startup that provides virtual and in-person addiction support, raised $83 million in Series B funding in June.

What are they saying: As chatbots become more technologically sophisticated, they may begin to compete with telemental health tools, including one-on-one therapy, according to investors.

  • β€œThe long-term question is, can AI chatbots seamlessly mimic real human interaction and relationships?” says Shivan Bhavnani, founder of the Global Institute for Mental and Brain Health Investments. “If the answer is yes, then that certainly extends to the patient-therapist relationship.”

Stillmore research is needed to determine how well these messaging tools work, says John Torus, director of the Division of Digital Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

  • “They all offered interesting pilot evidence, but not conclusive evidence of their efficacy,” Torus says.

A fun thing: The name Wysa is a play on the words “wiser” and Eliza, one of the first AI psychotherapy chatbots.

  • “I was skeptical at first. I thought to myself, who would want to talk to a chatbot about their deepest darkest fears? But interest has exploded,” says Vempati.

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