Mental health startup looks ‘more like Peloton class’ than teletherapy, CEO says

·4 min read

As the COVID-19 pandemic looks set to stretch into its third year, prolonged isolation and uncertainty continue to take a toll on Americans’ mental health. While studies show Americans are struggling with their mental health in record numbers, it’s not always easy to get treatment.

A recent New York Times survey of over 1300 therapists found that demand for help is higher than ever before, with nine out of 10 respondents reporting a rise in clients seeking care, and almost one in three clinicians noting that their waitlists were at least three months long.

Therapy startup Real is looking to address this shortfall by offering group therapy sessions and goal-oriented progress tracking that aim to provide personalization at scale — something its founder says traditional care systems often don’t do well enough.

Ariela Safira founded Real in 2019, with a mission to make mental wellness an essential part of daily life, promoting long-term maintenance to avoid health crises.

“The insight we're bringing to life is people do need to work on their mental health regularly such that they prevent care,” Safira, who also serves as the company’s CEO, told Yahoo Finance. “In the same way that you can't just go to the gym for a month and assume you're healthy for life, you can't work on your mental health for a month and assume you're healthy for life.”

The virtual therapy space is not exactly untapped, with competitors like Talkspace and BetterHelp seeing a massive boost in users as the pandemic unfolded. But while those platforms primarily specialize in one-on-one experiences, Safira was quick to note that Real isn’t trying to mimic the standard telehealth care model.

“It's powered by this on-demand, one-to-many experience that, not to be reductive, looks and feels much more like your Peloton classes of today,” said Safira, whose bio notes that she joined Columbia University’s Clinical Psychology program to become a therapist but left in 2019 to launch Real.

Once a member joins, they gain access to Real’s team of licensed mental health professionals, who design curricula and provide group therapy talks and roundtables they can consume on-the-go — ranging from five-minute chats to more long-form sessions. The company’s website lists three licensed therapists, including a licensed master social worker, a clinical social worker, and a marriage and family therapist. Real also employs a chief therapy officer, who has a Master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in human sexuality. The company’s chief medical officer, Nina Vasan, is a psychiatrist.

Credit: Real
Credit: Real

Offering subscription-based membership plans ranging from $13 to $24 per month, Real emphasizes affordability and accessibility. While subscribers can currently utilize pre-tax accounts such as HSAs and FSAs for the suite of wellness services, Safira indicated it’s a company goal to develop out more coverage and funding options — an effort to expand care in underserved communities.

“On one hand, we have the infrastructure to ensure this is funded beyond private pay. And then the other we're not just waiting until then to offer care,” she said. “We already today are meeting communities where they're at."

The startup, whose backers include Gwyneth Paltrow and soccer player Megan Rapinoe, as well as VC firms Forerunner and Lightspeed, has raised over $16 million in funding to date. “Nearly all the investors I've worked with had a personal story, be it about them or a loved one, relevant to how the mental health care system failed them,” the founder noted.

And her mission is also a personal one. When a friend unexpectedly attempted suicide during Safira’s time as an undergrad at Stanford University, she decided to devote her studies — and eventually her career — to developing a new model of care.

“That really was my first experience with the mental health care system, the first time I'd ever seen a rehab or really come close to psych meds and therapy. And I didn't think it made sense, so I threw myself at it.”

Another way that Real hopes to separate itself from the pack is the option to allow clients to remain anonymous. Safira said the ability for users to hide their identities on the platform helps to foster the comfortable environments needed to effectively address more intimate issues.

“People find peers and communities and networks more on Reddit and Twitter than they often do in person, right?” Safira noted. “... What is it that allows people to — without sharing their identity on these platforms — feel safe enough and trusting enough to speak about very intimate concepts? And how can we bring that to life in a way that is clinically effective, and a way that actually meets people where they're at?’”