Wysa, a little penguin that sits in your phone and helps you face whatever life throws at you, has raised a total of $1.3 million in seed funding from early stage investment firm Kae Capital and angel investors.

Created as an AI coach for behavioural and mental health, Wysa offers evidence-based techniques through empathetic, anonymous conversations. So far, it has had over 3 million conversations with people from 30 countries. “In the last month, three people wrote to us to say that Wysa saved their life. It blew our minds that by providing an empathetic ear, even an AI bot could help people hold on when they felt they had no one to turn to,” said Jo Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO.

Wysa’s AI may not replace therapists, but it can reach people across barriers of geography, culture and language. It may be the only hope for many in countries like India, where there are less than 5,000 mental health professionals to serve 1.2 billion people. Globally, mental health is the leading cause of disability. In 2010, this cost the economy $2.5 trillion in health costs and lost productivity, more than half of total global health spending. In high income countries, less than 30% of people with mental illness receive treatment, and this is 10% in low and middle-income countries.

Wysa started as a side project for healthcare AI start-up Touchkin, and soon acquired a life of its own. Ramakant Vempati, co-founder, shares, “Our technology passively detects behavioural health issues from smartphone sensors and engages them through chat.  In a trial with basic smartphones in semi-urban India, we could predict depression in people with diabetes to a 90% accuracy.  Excited, we followed up to see how this helped the patient. The findings were stunning: less than 3% of patients took support from a therapist in spite of their doctor’s recommendation, because of stigma and lack of access. Diagnosis of depression was not enough in itself- it felt like we were building fire alarms, when what we needed were fire extinguishers. However, sharing how they felt with a chatbot helped patients significantly and we saw depression symptoms reduce by 45% over 12 weeks. So, Wysa was born.”

Wysa collaborates with researchers across the world to validate its clinical efficacy. Dr Becky Inkster, Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge and Visiting Scholar, School of Social Work, Columbia University has been working with Wysa to bring it to disadvantaged groups that are hard to reach.  She said, “What sets this approach aside from other Big Data collection approaches is its ability to simultaneously guide clinical care while being driven by the needs and desires of the individual. One of the most stimulating challenges for integrating AI technology into mental health support and social psychiatry, as I see it, will be how to incorporate culture, preferences and empathy into the AI experience.”

Wysa supports a variety of behavioural health use cases including anxiety, smoking cessation, diabetes and disability support, to reduce healthcare costs and improve adherence. Vidushi Kamani, Venture Partner at Kae Capital and an investor in Wysa, said, “Combining passive sensing technology with a personalised AI coach changes the economics of the behavioural health and wellness industry globally. With Wysa, providers can increase the number of people supported per coach by 10-100X, with increased engagement, better monitoring and improved self-management.” Touchkin is taking Wysa to the insurance sector through its collaboration with Swiss Re, one of the leading reinsurance companies globally.

Wysa has been a part of Swiss Re’s Insurtech accelerator in 2016, Facebook’s global incubation program FbStart, and has won an innovation award from WASME and the MSME Ministry, Government of India.

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