Mental Health Startup Fellowship

After nearly two decades struggling with addiction and untreated bipolar disorder, I almost lost my life to these diseases in 2018. After going to rehab, I wanted to be a part of creating solutions for people like me. I launched What If Ventures as a syndicate, to fund mental health startups, in January 2020. Since then, we have funded 8 mental health startups with a total of $4.5mm invested.

After looking at over 1,000 mental health startups, I noticed a few trends. Many of the entrepreneurs approaching this space are often new to building a business, or they are new to the behavioral health space. As I have worked to build an ecosystem of resources and support for entrepreneurs building mental health startups, I’ve been fortunate to develop a robust network of investors, payers, providers, and other strategic partners who share my passion for mental health and recovery.

Many aspiring founders reach out to me asking for help and advice. I want to help them all, but the syndicate can’t possibly invest in all of them and my team can’t carve out time to effectively help everyone either. But, there had to be something we could do.

I wanted to find a way to leverage my investment banking advisory, startup investing and behavioral health experience to help founders who share my passion for this space. So, I launched the What If Fellowship to facilitate company building in the behavioral health space.

How the Fellowship Works

The program is an 8 week intensive program designed to help founders get better at building sustainable businesses including, helping them prepare to raise money. There are five primary components of the program as outlined here:

Topic Sessions — We begin each week with a group session (over Zoom) focused on a topic relating to building businesses, pitching investors and in some cases we provide templates to help you work through specific parts of building your business plan.

Speaker Meetings — We have world class founders, strategic partners, and investors who have been already found success in the mental health who are willing to give of their time to mentor the next generation of founders. These speakers will share about their experience building successful mental health companies. In cohort #1 some of those speakers include Michael Acton Smith (Co-founder of Calm), Alyson (Friedensohn) Watson (Founder and CEO of Modern Health), Tom Insel (Co-founder of Mindstrong and former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health) among others. Our cohort members get a chance to not just hear these founders speak, but interact with and ask questions of them as well.

Some of the speakers joining us for cohort #1

Image for post

Pitch Practice — We have nearly two dozen pitch practice sessions scheduled over the 8 week period hosted by our friends from other VC funds. In these sessions, founders get 3 minutes to pitch their business and then get 2 minutes of direct feedback from the guest VC. Many of these VCs are from top funds and some are super angels who invest actively in mental health startups. In addition to the direct individual feedback, founders get to hear their peers pitch and learn from the feedback given to their peers as well. I find this to be one of the most impactful components of the program.

Working Sessions — On Friday mornings we gather as a group (on Zoom) to digest what we’ve learned that week. Founders ask questions about that week’s content, or what they are struggling with in their individual process and we talk through those issues, which are sometimes high level and sometimes very specific in front of the group

Community — Fellows are invited to a private slack community where they collaborate, and have continuous access to members of the What If Ventures team, as well as some of our advisors and friends. Founders are able to work together, share ideas, and ask questions as they run into roadblocks on their journeys. As future cohorts join, the community will grow. One final component of the community is a data room where we share resources including replays of speaker meetings, templates (financial models, cap tables, pitch decks, etc.) and other materials to help founders along on their journey.

We begin the 8 week journey by outlining what a good pitch can look like for a startup. We identify the critical components of a founder’s story and coach each founder on how to effectively communicate their story for the purpose of fundraising.

Over the course of the next 8 weeks, each activity is designed to help founders refine a specific part of the ideal pitch. Some of the primary topics we cover are:

  1. Pitch deck (how to get an investor’s attention, and get them to engage)
  2. Financial forecast (building a forecast to support how you answer specific investor questions that will stand the test of diligence)
  3. Cap table (will help you figure out how much of your company you will own, multiple rounds into the future based on decisions you make today)
  4. Startup legal (formation, deal structures, etc.)
  5. Valuation (based on deep market knowledge specific to the mental health space)
  6. Market sizing (based on research we’ve used to pitch this space to our investors)
  7. Customer discovery (idea validation, etc.)
  8. Fundraising (strategy, process, approaching investors, and helping you make sense of the nearly 1,000 investors who have put money to work in mental health startups, that we have identified and put onto a list we will share with you)

Pitch Practice

This is one of the most important parts of the program. Nothing helps founders get better at pitching to investors than just doing it, and getting direct constructive feedback.

Demo Day

The program culminates in a digital demo day where each founder gets 3 minutes to present their idea to potential investors, payers, providers and strategic partners. The audience on demo day is comprised of individual investors from our LP base of more than 2,500 investors, as well as VC funds who have been active in the mental health space, and senior leadership from several large scale payers and providers.

We strongly encourage investors to join us and form direct relationships with the founders. We do not mandate that demo day attendees invest through our syndicate into the startups. Our broader mission is increasing the flow of capital into this space, and it doesn’t have to flow through us.

Are you an investor, payer, provider, or startup supporter who would like to attend our next demo day? Fill out this form to be invited.

Who is coming to demo day? People from these organizations have already signed up to attend and more are committing every day:

Representative group of demo day attendees for cohort 1

Image for post

Founders: Apply For Our Next Cohort

The application process is very straight forward. We plan to launch a new cohort on the first of each calendar quarter. Space is limited so apply early to make sure you have a chance at one of the slots.

Step 1) Fill out the application located here.

Step 2) We will invite you to interview.

Step 3) Schedule an interview.

Step 4) Get an offer to join.

Step 5) Accept the offer!

About the Author: Stephen Hays — After decades of addiction and struggling with bipolar disorder, Stephen was fortunate to receive help and has focused his attention on funding solutions to the problems he lived with. You can read more about his story here.

About What If Ventures What If Ventures exists to invest in mental health and addiction focused startups. The fund was launched in 2019 by Stephen Hays. Investors can join the deal distribution email list here.