Supportiv is a stigma-free, anonymous, and affordable place to receive hyper-targeted peer support service addressing users’ underlying relationship, work and family needs. Alex Efron spoke with co-founders Helena Plater-Zyberk and Pouria Mojabi to discuss how Supportiv’s AI-enabled digital health platform expands mental health access and strengthens interpersonal communication.
The United States is facing a mental health crisis. Despite spending over $200B annually on mental health care, the majority of the 44 million adults living with a mental health condition have not received treatment in the past year. The statistics surrounding depression, anxiety, bipolar, and addiction disorders (to name a few) are staggering, and healthcare providers, payers and technology companies are racing to address the gaps in access and care. Beyond clinically diagnosed conditions there are a myriad of unaddressed stressors, including the pains of loneliness, financial distress, grief, relationship problems, and stress from work/school, which have tangible impacts on our health & well-being. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote that, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
“Relationships are fractured, communities are broken, and we don’t have the cohesive support structure that communities used to. This drives a lot of sadness, loneliness and malaise for teens and adults, and it also compounds issues for people with mental health issues”
– Helena, CEO of Supportiv
Digitally Enabled Peer Support
While there’s a plethora of companies pursuing telemedicine and app-based services to treat high-acuity mental health conditions, few aim to specifically address the more common struggles of the population. Supportiv, however, has developed an AI- and human-powered platform to offer peer support to the masses. Peer support is about sharing knowledge, experience, and emotional support, and a glut of research evidence supports the tangible impact of peer support on quality of life and clinical outcomes. The critical question is: what is the best way to expand access while maintaining quality? Supportiv may provide the solution.
“We wanted a mechanism for people to speak freely about what was weighing on their mind. They’re more likely to reveal what’s truly going on if they’re connected with another person, particularly another person who’s actually going through the same hardship they are. Instantly you’ve created that bond with someone who’s going to listen to you, validate you, and reflect back to you the reality of your situation because they understand it from your point of view.”
– Helena, CEO of Supportiv
Upon opening the Supportiv app (available on iPhone & Android), a user is asked just one question: “What’s your struggle?” Onboarding is quick, with no hefty registration, questionnaires, appointments or forms. Supportiv’s proprietary natural language processing (NLP) algorithm is able to analyze unstructured text in order to route the user, in real time, to a tailored peer support group that dynamically convenes for users with similar issues. A trained human moderator keeps the chat safe and troll-free and, supported by the platform’s AI, to provide users with precisely relevant resources, recommendations, and referrals.
These digital, chat-based groups are modeled after typical in-person support groups. Moderators, who are mostly psychology graduate and undergraduate students, are trained in a 3-module course to be effective facilitators, not therapists. In addition to encouraging users to interact with each other in a constructive manner, Moderators can serve up AI-suggested resources & referrals. When I took the iPhone app for a spin, the Moderator provided me with helpful and personal recommendations and strategies to help manage my particular struggle-of-the-week.
Meet the Founders
Helena Plater-Zyberk (CBS ’06) started her executive career as CEO of SimpleTherapy, a provider of online physical therapy. Whilst chairing a digital therapies working group, she noticed that while many of the products served employers and health plans, few were consumer-facing. This observation sparked Helena’s desire to create an affordable tool that would help consumers navigate digital health resources and get the care they needed.
Legendary businesswoman, philanthropist, and investor Esther Dyson connected Helena with an expert in NLP and AI, future co-founder Pouria Mojabi (USC ’07). Pouria has 12 years experience in healthcare as an engineer, including joining the software company BaseHealth as employee #1 where he ran the algorithm department to develop a product that analyzes disease risk from genetic, behavioral health, and blood test data. Pouria later co-founded the venture-backed startup Vitagene, which leveraged similar data to create personalized supplement packages. Pouria saw the impact of support groups in bringing people out of isolation and providing both emotional and practical support. Like Helena, he wanted to build a digital health solution to bring people together, such that they could tackle these issues together. Within several hours of meeting, Helena and Pouria had white-boarded out what has now become Supportiv.
Success So Far
Co-founders Pouria Mojabi and Helena Plater-Zyberk
Launching a limited private Beta with the MVP in mid-2018, Supportiv quickly hit 48,000 active users and received glowingly positive feedback: 90% of users reported feeling better, and 76% felt happier after connecting with another individuals dealing with a similar struggle. The platform is also “sticky”: with over 55,000 unique members, the average user returns to the app 3 times per month for an average session of 22 minutes. Users have reported that it’s the convenience, specificity, and immediacy of the on-demand platform that keeps them coming back.
“The people that are chatting with me about my thoughts feel like my guardian angels. It feels so good to not just keep it in my head. Thank you for creating this.”
– User Testimonial
The founders are committed to providing Supportiv as a paid but affordable service free of advertising and concerns over data privacy. After a free trial period, users pay 20 cents a minute (or a monthly unlimited subscription) to join a human-moderated support group with a maximum of 9 other users. Users are encouraged to utilize the service whenever they feel it’s necessary. Due to perceived high costs relative to urgency, many people with ‘low-acuity’ mental health issues currently forego treatment and support. However, this pricing model reduces this cost concern and, in doing so, lowers the barriers for customer acquisition.
While there are many digital health apps focused on telehealth and virtual consultation, few startups are directly engaging in peer support. One competitor, Marigold Health, is pursuing an enterprise-only model that focuses on discrete behavioral health conditions, like addiction disorder. Huddle leverages video and forgoes the moderator, similarly bucketing groups based on discrete conditions like addiction and depression. TalkLife takes a social network approach to peer support, while Woebot skips the human element altogether with a chatbot product. Supportiv’s team is confident that their direct-to-consumer approach combined with topic flexibility, true anonymity, and a human touch, will drive adoption in a wider market.
Looking to the Future
Up until this point, all user growth has been organic via word-of-mouth, but Supportiv is currently rolling out a large content strategy which it hopes will resonate with potential users. Investors are starting to take notice, and the company has recently been selected as a Top 5 Finalist in SXSW Pitch 2019’s Social & Culture category. The founders are also beginning to build out a channel for health plans and employers; they’re already contracting with two Fortune 50 enterprise clients. Beyond healthier and happier outcomes, the potential appeal for enterprise customers is the ability to receive aggregated, anonymous insights regarding their employees or health plan members. In the long term, the combined enterprise and DTC approaches may complement each other by expanding the platform’s reach and reducing financial barriers.
Users will ultimately decide which platform, payment model, and communication modality best meets their needs. Technology will continue to play a bigger role in mental health care, and peer support networks like Supportiv will help address the significant unmet needs of empathetic communication, patient education, and access to care.