Hamzah Selim found inspiration for his startup in an unusual place: Snapchat.
His app, Mindstep, uses the same technology that tracks eye movement to power Snapchat filters — which is embedded in most smartphones — to diagnose and treat key indicators of a number of brain health conditions, like dementia, depression, anxiety and brain fog.
Today it's announcing a £2.5m seed round led by Octopus Ventures. The raise is part of a post-pandemic investment boost for mental health startups in Europe that's seen investment in the sector grow 10-fold in the past two years to $1.2bn, according to Dealroom.
The rise in investor interest comes as healthcare systems are beginning to offer more digital therapy services to patients for free; mental health startup HelloBetter became available via Germany’s public health body last October and patients in Scotland can now access digital therapeutics for anxiety on the NHS.
The mental health market is a nascent one, says healthtech-focused Verve Ventures’ investment manager Michael Lutolf, but has huge potential.
“Given the unmet need and the market size, mental health is underfunded,” he tells Sifted. “It is still a relatively young field, but once there are the first successful cases the funding will definitely rise and investors will finance these companies from seed to IPO.”
One-stop neurology clinic
What makes London-based Mindstep stand out from other mental health startups in the market, Selim says, is its clinical approach to diagnosing patients combined with an easy-to-use interface.
Other popular apps on the market like the meditation-focused Headspace — while effective for a lot of people with anxiety and depression — aren’t the answer for people suffering from other brain health conditions, like dementia, Selim tells Sifted.
On the other hand, brain health assessment platform Altoida has developed a clinically sound product, but is “more focused on the B2B market”, he adds.
When patients get screened on the app, they’re assessed via chatbot and a number of visual tests, in part by using software like Apple’s iPhone’s FaceID and AugmentRealityKit 3.0. These can accurately monitor things like pupil flickers — a key indicator of early Alzheimer’s — and diagnose depression by looking at facial expressions.
“We look at a patient’s diet, their exercise, their anxiety, their brain fog and their cognition,” he tells Sifted. “It’s like if you went to a GP with a skin condition, the doctor isn’t going to look at a patch of skin and ignore the rest of your body… Mindstep is a one-stop neurology clinic.”
The patient’s data is analysed by Mindstep’s AI — which is trained on a 20,000 person-strong dataset to recognise specific brain patterns — and an at-home treatment plan is built.
According to peer-reviewed research, Mindstep can identify mental health issues like anxiety, depression and other dementia risk factors, with the “same or superior accuracy” to a doctor in a fraction of the time.
But the point isn’t about replacing human neurologists.
“By no means can we replace the human element that is vital in care,” says Selim. Instead, he says, Mindstep wants to help address the challenges posed by the UK’s shortage of neurologists, brought on by the pandemic and an ageing population. It also hopes to catch the symptoms of potentially serious brain conditions early.
“Dementia, for instance, is the leading cause of death in the UK but up to 40% is preventable if you can intervene early enough,” he adds.
The next steps
If practical healthcare experience is any measure of future success for a digital therapy startup, the cards are stacked in Mindstep’s favour. Half of the company’s 20-strong team are NHS doctors or doctors-in-training — an unusual mix even for a healthtech.
The product is still undergoing clinical trials with the UK’s regulatory body, the MHRA, which it expects to complete in March, ahead of the UK launch in September.
When the app goes live it’ll be sold directly to the patient, costing about the price of a Spotify subscription per month, Selim says, although all users will be able to complete the screening process and access some results for free.
But that’s just the beginning, Selim tells Sifted; eventually the plan is to partner with the NHS so the end user pays nothing.
He’s also planning to raise a Series A in early 2023. With the funds, Mindstep will look to add treatment for other brain conditions to the app — although Selim is coy about what these might be — and as regulatory bodies open to the idea of digital therapy apps across Europe, expand geographically.
While some consumer-facing healthtechs in Europe have seen considerable success in recent times — Babylon listed and Kry became a unicorn last year — startups focused exclusively on mental health haven’t yet hit major scale.
One of the main hurdles to reaching that stage for these startups is approval by public health bodies for reimbursement — meaning their products could be prescribed to patients free of charge with the state paying the company. Following pandemic-driven digital acceleration, this is becoming a far more attainable goal.
“It used to be really hard to put new apps in front of patients,” says Selim. “But [in the UK] there’s been a real shift from the NHS and the government in recognising that apps are the future for accessibility.”
Across Europe, regulators’ attitudes are also shifting.
Germany led the way in Europe when it launched its “DiGA” programme — a standardised process allowing digital healthcare apps to be prescribed by doctors — in 2019. The first apps were approved in late 2020, and German patients can now access 30 digital healthcare solutions.
In 2021, Belgium and France also announced plans to introduce similar programmes to reimburse digital health apps as part of public healthcare.