Wysa Nets $20M to Bring AI to Employee Mental Health
Consumers have become used to relying on conversational-based artificial intelligence for a host of daily tasks, from interacting with companies' customer service departments to navigating employee benefits and HR systems. If tech startup Wysa has its way, we might just be doing the same thing for our mental health needs.
The company, with offices in Boston, London and Bengaluru, India, announced on July 14 that it secured $20 million in new funding led by New Delhi, India-based healthcare investment fund HealthQuad with participation from UK-based British International Investment. This Series B funding round brings the company's total raised to $29.4 million, according to Crunchbase.
Wysa plans to use the latest funding to expand in the US, UK and India, and add multilingual support and access via messaging platform WhatsApp.
How Wysa's Chatbot Works
Wysa, originally founded in India, is an AI chatbot that uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to guide users through app-based exercises that "triage users according to their personal needs," according to a company statement.
The platform will then funnel users to other mental health services or crisis support, if needed. It will also provide employers or health organizations using the app with usage rates.
"Wysa meets people where they are, whether that means a little help with occasional workplace stress, right up to coping with debilitating pain, depression and anxiety," said Ramakant Vempati, Wysa co-founder, in a press release statement. "With this funding, we look forward to scaling up further and helping millions of more people."
According to company figures, more than 4.5 million people in 65 countries have used the service and enterprise clients include Accenture, Colgate-Palmolive, Aetna, Swiss Re and the UK's National Health Service. Vempati told TechCrunch that approximately 80% of Wysa’s business comes from enterprise customers, and that enterprise and business customers will be increasingly important to the company's growth.
Growing Workplace Concern About Employee Mental Health
For many employers, the stresses of the last two-plus years have brought the mental health crisis into sharp focus as a workplace issue. A study published in the October 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review found that mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels.
One of the factors exacerbating the mental health crisis is the long wait time to get help via traditional health plans, according to a March 2022 Reworked article. The typical wait time between asking for help and getting an appointment is four to six weeks according to Sandra Kuhn, behavioral health consulting leader at Mercer Consulting.
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Employer benefits programs are failing to keep pace. According to a study conducted by insurer The Hartford, there is a significant gap between companies' beliefs about employee mental health support and how employees perceive those programs.
According to the report, 82% of employers believe their employees have more access to mental health resources than in previous years, while only 50% of workers agree. Similarly, 79% of employers said their employees’ mental health had improved due to the company’s resources, but only 35% of workers found this to be true.
Liz Hall, chief people officer at event marketing company Splash, told Reworked in May that the way a company approaches mental health has a huge role in how its culture is perceived by employees.
"In this day and age, with the growing awareness over the last two years, it’s evident that potential candidates and current employees expect mental health to be addressed directly by their employers. If a business falls behind on this, candidates and employees will have great concerns about the company culture,” said Hall.
The Rise of Mental Health Startups
Wysa joins a growing group of technology startups that aim to address the mental health challenge. The demand for mental health solutions during COVID and beyond led to significant growth in the mental health tech landscape. In 2021, three mental health tech companies received more than $100 million in venture funding deals — Lyra Health secured $187 million; and Ginger and Mindstrong each raised $100 million. Modern Health, a mental health benefits company, also raised $74 million.
Employee coaching and mental health app BetterUp made a big splash when it hired Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and an outspoken advocate for mental health, as its chief impact officer. That news was nearly eclipsed later in the year when the company announced a massive $300 million investment that valued the company at $4.7 billion.
“We are seeing a massive acceleration in demand for technology-enabled access to mental healthcare,” Russ Glass, CEO of Ginger, told Reworked in May 2021.
Wysa's new funding push comes fresh off the company's announcement that it received Breakthrough Device Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration for its use for adult diagnosis of chronic musculoskeletal pain and related depression and anxiety. The FDA designation is a voluntary program that aims to speed up the development, assessment and review of certain medical devices by providing enhanced access to FDA experts.