Mental health startup Ksana Health has received $2 million in seed funding led by re:Mind Capital, the mental health VC arm of Christian Angermayer and Apeiron Investment Group. It’s a move informed by two trends: passive data collection, and a burgeoning mental health crisis in teens and young adults.
Ksana Health is an Oregon-based company founded two years ago by University of Oregon Professor Nicholas Allen, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Digital Mental Health. Ksana's platforms focus on collecting data related to mental health, and transfer that data from user to healthcare practitioners through an app. It's, in essence, a mobile therapy app with a highly detailed dashboard of patient information.
The company has 12 employees, and other investors in the round include WPSS Investments, Panoramic Ventures, the Telosity Fund, Palo Santo Venture Fund and Able Partners.
So far, Ksana Health has one live product called the Effortless Assessment Research System (EARS), which is designed for institutions conducting clinical research. Participants in clinical trials can download an app and opt-in to sharing with the trial’s investigators data, including movement, location (via GPS), keystrokes and patterns in written language content (no specific messages are shared). The app’s connection also goes two ways: trial administrators can send out things like surveys to keep in touch with participants.
The EARS product, says Allen, has already generated about $900,000 in revenue based on usage in clinical trials, but this most recent round of funding is geared toward another product called Vira, aimed at consumers.
Vira will also passively collect data like exercise (via an accelerometer), screen time, keystrokes or location-based data via a smartphone or smart device. Screenshots from Vira's dashboard also include sleep data, though that's not specifically listed as a recorded variable on the company's website at the moment. Instead of funneling that data to a clinical trial, the data will be accessible to a patient’s therapist.
The user would give a therapist a personalized code that allows them to access data collected on their phone. Then, a therapist might discuss those habits, and program behavioral nudges to pop up on a phone during the day, reminding the user to exercise, or wind down before bed.
“Basically what this system does is it allows some of the data that's been collected by the way people use their cell phones in a day to day fashion [to be turned] into indicators of important health behaviors that we know are relevant to mental health -- so things like sleep, physical activity, geographic mobility, mood, cognition, social connection,” Allen says.
Vira is a major force of forward momentum for Ksana Health. The company was also selected as part of the insurance company Anthem Inc.’s, Digital Incubator program. That inclusion allows Vira to be trialed within Beacon Health Options, a behavioral health company with 37 million members.
Vira has yet to launch, but the key audience, says Allen, is people 13 to 30 years old. Rates of mental health issues within this group have increased (even before the pandemic).
In 2019, a study in "Abnormal Psychology" analyzing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the rate of young adults (18 to 25) reporting signs of major depression jumped 63% (from 7.7 to 13.1%) between 2009 and 2017. Meanwhile, there was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing mental distress or depression in that study.
The answer Vira seems to offer is extremely detailed data on well-being that will be funneled to a therapist. Data collection in the mental health space isn’t unheard of -- some AI-based mental health chatbots do indeed analyze user conversations, but those conversations happen within the confines of an app. Vira, conversely, is capable of constantly collecting data on a variety of variables that are passively trackable by a phone, and have some bearing on mental health.
Critically, there are no clinical trials of Vira itself right now, but the concept of the app is based on research that verifies each one of its individual parts. For instance, there is evidence that language used on social media can predict mood disorders, and that lack of sleep (or in some cases, excessive sleep) is linked to anxiety and depression.
In some sense, Ksana Health is somewhat reminiscent of a cadre of software betting that improving mental health is partially a factor of increased vigilance of digital life, particularly among teens. AI-based software like GoGuardian for instance, has been used in school to record students keystrokes or search histories in an attempt to head off student suicides.
GoGuardian was used in Clark County in Nevada, home to the fifth largest school district in the country, and flagged 3,100 potential signs of self-harm between June and October 2020.
Like GoGuardian, Ksana Health also catalogs digital activity as an indicator of mental health (note the inclusion of key strokes and language patterns, not just health variables like exercise), but Ksana Health’s focus also appears to be less on flagging harmful behavior automatically, and more about providing an extremely detailed data dashboard to a human therapist.
“Our focus initially is to keep, for want of a better term, a human in the loop,” says Allen. Ksana Health also isn’t AI-based, so it may be harder to scale, but Allen sees this as a benefit, not a liability.
“That's why we're focused on embedding this within practitioners,” he says. “There's obvious appeal to the scale of a fully automated solution, you know you can scale it up very quickly. But I think the problems with safety are very significant in those systems.”
This comprehensive array of data, but particularly the language component, says Jan Hardorp, a founding partner at re:Mind Capital, is one aspect that attracted the firm to Ksana Health. Hardorp will also have a seat on Ksana Health’s board.
“We believe that language is very strong and variable, and then combined with other sensors, is a very good technological basis in order to assess and predict mental state and depression,” he says.
The move fits within re:Mind’s somewhat unconventional approaches to mental health: Angermayer held a 22% stake in Compass Pathways, a company pursuing psychedelics as a fast-acting treatment for depression. That stake was worth about $316 million during the company’s September 2020 IPO. Angermayer’s other public investments span from cryptocurrencies to cannabis.
Hardorp says that overall, re:Mind’s activities are focused on one-third novel treatments (like psychedelics), one-third brain computer interfaces and one-third technology. Ksana Health fits squarely in that third category.
Allen says the company is already planning clinical trials of the Vira program in addition to the pilot program with Beacon Health. But Hardorp notes that so far, the lack of clinical trials on Vira itself hasn’t given him pause. He takes the strength of the EARS platform as a signal that Ksana Health’s platform is viable in the real world.
“We’re quite confident that it’s really the same technology. The Vira product, if you want, is really a new front-end to existing technology and algorithms,” he says.
At the moment, the Vira platform isn’t commercially available, but Allen is anticipating a launch in the first quarter of 2022.