A Rare Pandemic Silver Lining: Mental Health Start-Ups

“It’s a crowded space,” Alex Katz, the founder of Two Chairs, which opened its doors with a single clinic in San Francisco in 2017, said of the mental health start-up scene. Nonetheless, he said, “because the problems are massive, we need a lot of great companies working in innovative ways to address the different populations, diagnoses and delivery of care.”

Mr. Katz, another Stanford graduate, began working at Palantir, the data analytics and software company, but sought to understand mental health services when his partner “was going through a tough time in her life.” He eventually quit his job and began to tap into his network of friends and family to understand the mental health care system.

He soon learned that one of the system’s biggest challenges was matching a therapist with a patient, something he thought technology could solve. Yet, after interviewing clinicians, he chose to start a physical clinic, rather than a virtual one. In trying to raise funds for his fledgling business, “I joke that I had three strikes against me: I was a first-time, solo founder of a bricks-and-mortar company in health care.” But from its inception, Two Chairs has relied on technology, using a frequently updated proprietary algorithm to match client and therapist after a prospective client’s first intake meeting.

Although both Ms. Safira and Mr. Katz initially focused on in-person care, with virtual therapy as a long-term goal, they had no choice but to change direction once the pandemic hit. Ms. Safira and her small team quickly had to shift from the Manhattan space they carefully designed and renovated, but never opened, to go completely remote. Within eight long days, she produced a remote platform to provide five types of services, largely group-oriented (one-on-one sessions will wait until the in-person location opens). Mr. Katz — whose company had grown to seven locations in the Bay Area, with a new one set to open in Los Angeles next year — also made the decision in March to continue his business by going fully virtual.

Because both had planned, eventually, to offer remote services, they already knew that the efficacy of remote sessions was already proven. David Mohr, the director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who has studied the issue, said that researchers had long found that teletherapy could be as effective as in-person therapy.

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