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A touch of despondency comes over you when a friend messages: “Missing you so much! Was looking at our Cubbon Park pictures." It triggers a sense that nothing will be the same again. From pangs such as these to everyday worries about groceries and paralyzing anxiety about falling ill or caring for parents to deep concerns about financial uncertainty, our mental well-being is taking a beating as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

We are intrinsically social creatures, which makes it hard to cope with social distancing. Virtual social contact can alleviate this to an extent, but it can also add new forms of stress. Most of us are not trained to deal with one another’s anxieties. Sometimes pointers to reliable information are a help, and some AI-powered chatbots are trained to help us cope with these issues.

Bengaluru startup Wysa’s chatbot, for example, can carry on extended conversations in a variety of situations. Around 1.8 million people have used the app, which saw a spike in usage around the world as the coronavirus crisis deepened, says Jo Aggarwal, co-founder of Wysa.

FREE TOOLS FOR A CRISIS

Around mid-March, the startup created two “tool packs" and offered them free. One is a health pack aggregating techniques and resources to deal with the pandemic, while the other is for wellness related to isolation. Wysa also made all its content free for healthcare workers. “We’re partnering with large healthcare providers globally," says Aggarwal. “Our focus right now is to make the resource accessible to as many people as we can."

It’s a shift in strategy for the startup which was figuring out conversion and monetization at the start of the year. That’s gone to the backburner as user base expansion takes centrestage. A move in that direction was a Hindi version of the app.

“India always had this stigma around mental well-being and Indians made up less than a fifth of the app’s users. Now, everyday we’re seeing a surge of people using Wysa from India," says Aggarwal. “As people are working from home and their social support systems are not there, it has become more acceptable to acknowledge anxiety issues."

Wysa has a roster of qualified therapists who provide support via live sessions or text messaging, apart from helping develop the AI chatbot and self-care tool packs.

“When we started with the chatbot in 2017, the idea was that a term like ‘depression’ can mean different things to different people. So the first thing we worked on was helping people understand these different contexts and scenarios," says Wysa’s chief psychologist Smriti Joshi. “Then we provide tools to help people with their thoughts and feelings."

For example, depression generally relates to self-perception and the chatbot can help a person reframe their thoughts whatever the context may be. It can draw attention to what evidence supports those thoughts and whether those are facts. Or it can help switch to a problem-solving mode.

One of the most useful tools in the current situation is offloading worry. “I can think of a hundred scenarios around coronavirus. But ruminating over them becomes stressful. So the tool helps you do a brain dump to sort out thoughts between plain worries and those that can be solved," says Joshi.

One of Wysa’s early adopters was the NHS Foundation Trust, a unit of UK’s National Health Service, which recommended the app for troubled children in north-east London. The app passed NHS UK’s clinical safety standard for health tech. This helps Wysa stand out from the plethora of mental health apps, some of which may do more harm than good.

“The bot has to make sense of a question and reply in a clinically safe way. That’s a complex tech problem which they’re solving using AI," says Manish Singhal, founding partner at pi Ventures, which led a $2 million pre-series A funding round for Wysa last year.

Aggarwal wasn’t thinking of another funding round this year because the startup had “more than enough runway." But now, “we’ll take a call whether this new world means we have to ramp up fast."

Operating out of India has kept its cash burn low. But given the demand coming from the U.S., there’s a case for a full-fledged operation there which would require FDA approval, liability insurance, local therapists and so on. “Why let somebody with not as good a product capture that market? So we’re trying to figure out the right time," says Aggarwal.

DRAWING FROM EXPERIENCE

After a B.Tech from IIT Delhi and MBA from IIM Lucknow, Aggarwal had two decades of work experience before taking the plunge into entrepreneurship in 2015 along with her husband Ramakant Vempati. She had worked on learning and new media with the Tata Group and Pearson, while Vempati had gone into finance with Barclays and Goldman Sachs.

Currently, the consumer-facing app is mostly free, with less than 10% of users paying for premium services, says Vempati. “On the enterprise side, we have a fee-based service which unlocks premium services for employees."

Apart from NHS UK, a large IT company and an international healthcare chain are among its enterprise clients. A couple of large insurance companies are in the process of signing deals.

The entrepreneur couple had two pivots before settling on Wysa. Their initial venture Touchkin aimed to help the Indian diaspora keep track of elderly family members back home and provide them timely care. Stayclose was an app with a similar purpose. It was hard to turn these into viable businesses as they required a tie-in with local healthcare providers.

“Somewhere along the line, I fell into founder depression," says Aggarwal. “And I realised that even someone like me who had been active in psychology and coaching was not able to tell my team or even my spouse about it because I didn’t want to pull them down."

She turned instead to googling for resources and this led to two insights: She understood that articulating what was in her head was helpful. “You want to be able to talk. What the other person says is less important."

The second insight was that cognitive behaviour therapy tools online were hard to use. “So I started working on an idea to use natural language understanding to get people to vent, listen empathetically, and guide them to the right technique depending on what they were going through."

That understanding has grown in the last three years and underpins the Wysa AI bot’s value proposition. “For instance, you don’t want a bot urging you to reframe a negative thought if your partner has cheated on you. You just want to be angry," says Aggarwal with a laugh. “So we started understanding the nuances of these self-help techniques."

Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu

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