Jan 12, 2022
Leaning on one of the most overused finance analogies of all time, we are not even in the first inning of the mental health game. Rather, we haven’t even gotten on the bus to go to the stadium for warmups.
After investing $40mm into 31 startups in the mental health space since 2020 at What If Ventures, what I can tell you is that we really know very little, and this is a very long game.
Some people think too much money and too many founders have flooded the space, and maybe that’s true from some people’s perspective, but in reality, it’s going to take centuries to get this right, not just one or two capital market cycles. We’ve only begun to address the problem.
What we do know for sure is that there is a crisis — one in five U.S. adults experience a mental illness each year, and less than half of those who need help are able to get it. The supply of affordable, effective mental health care doesn’t come close to meeting the demand for such care. Demand is increasing rapidly as stigma decreases and people seek to improve their mental health.
Despite the cultural recognition of mental health in recent years and record VC funding in the space, we are still only beginning to fight this fight and we have such a long way to go.
Sometimes I think about where we are in mental health care relative to how far we’ve come in other disciplines. For example, let’s look at the human heart. The heart was first discovered in the 2nd century A.D. and we really started to understand it more fully in the 17th century (more on that here), yet still, in 2020, heart disease was the top cause of death in the United States.
Turning to mental health, let’s look at our understanding of the brain in the same context. We’ve known of the brain’s existence in the body for quite some time but started to really have a sense of how it functions in the 17th century. Looking deeper, specifically at mental health, we only identified serotonin — the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness — in the 1930s.
We haven’t exactly been leaning into mental health for the last 100 years, but for argument’s sake, let’s say we are 100 years into solving for mental health. When you compare that timeline to the heart, we’re literally in the Dark Ages (well, actually, just slightly before that as the Dark Ages began around the 5th century A.D.).
What does that mean? It simply means we don’t even know what we don’t know. We’ve just begun to even try to understand the problem.
The sky is not falling. In fact, we’ve made more progress in the last decade of mental health advancements than we made in past centuries of progress in other health indications, in my opinion. Over the last few years, What If Ventures has invested more than $40mm into 31 startups in the space and we’ve learned a lot from our involvement with our portfolio companies.
We’ve learned about the problems, solutions, and the market; the value proposition of various solutions; and the stakeholders in the space, including people who need care, providers, payers, founders, and investors. Below, I’ve summarized a few of the key learnings.
Let’s start with what has not changed since day one: our fundamental hypothesis that the supply of affordable, effective mental health solutions does not come close to meeting the demand for these services. There are nearly 8 billion people on earth, and we all have mental health. We all need some help maintaining that health just as we do with our physical health.
There are not, nor will there ever be, enough therapists and psychiatrists for each of us to get the care we need from the traditional model where we each see a therapist for an hour and maybe get a prescription for an anti-depressant from our psychiatrist. There just aren’t enough providers, and we can’t make them fast enough to keep up with the surging demand resulting from the rapid decrease of mental health stigma that has driven more and more people to finally seek support.
Where will the supply of care come from? It will come from:
This is where venture capital comes into the picture, including us, What If Ventures.
I’ve listed a handful of the categories in which I think we will see major breakthroughs in the coming years based on investing in 31 startups in the space and evaluating over 1,000 businesses in the last two years. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some of the areas we are thinking about daily.
There are so many ways to attack the mental health crisis. There are thousands of problems, and even more potential solutions. This isn’t a winner-take-all kind of market or problem set. There is room for everyone and anyone to try to help. That is our focus — getting as many people involved in the development of solutions as possible.
My way of being a part of it is to invest in startups bringing solutions to market. To that end, I created What If Ventures out of my own struggle with addiction and mental health differences. I want to see more innovation, more capital, more business creation, and more people to focus on this problem set. If we can impact those things, then we can find out what solutions work, what solutions don’t work, and we can advance humans toward better mental health together.
I hope you will join us as we work on this mission. There are a number of ways to get plugged in, whether you’re an aspiring startup founder, someone who wants to work in the space, an investor, or someone curious about how to improve your own mental health. Take a look at the links below if you’d like to connect with what we are doing.