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#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek: How the venture capital market is tackling the UK’s mental health crisis

This article is featured as part of our week-long series looking at awareness and practical advice to support the Mental Health of those working across the financial services sector.

Hayley Hand, Investment Director, Big Society Capital

The venture capital market is shifting towards impact. Increasing numbers of investors, venture capital managers and startup founders are backing and building organisations that are driven by social mission. At Big Society Capital, we define an impact startup as:

“A startup whose purpose is to contribute to solutions that create positive change – and over time enables and evidences strong impact performance through proportionate impact practice”

In 2021, we reviewed nearly ten times as many proposals for impact venture funds than in 2018. And at a market level, Dealroom data shows that impact startups now account for over 15% of total European VC investment, which is three times more than in 2010.

The onset of the pandemic accelerated this trajectory. As the UK has become increasingly aware of social inequalities playing out; the desire to channel resources into tackling them has deepened. In response, many impact startups have stepped up and adapted to the crisis in areas such as greater financial inclusion, eradicating education skill gaps and improving health.

Needed now more than ever

Mental health has become an area where startups like these are now needed more than ever. One in six children experienced mental health problems last year, an increase from 1 in 9 pre-pandemic. And mental health problems are reported to be the largest single cause of disability in the UK.

We have seen numerous examples of startups across the portfolios of funds we invest in effectively tackling these issues. For example, Togetherall, backed by Lightrock, is a digital service for people with a variety of mental health and wellbeing issues – from anxiety, depression, stress and trauma, to relationship problems and lifestyle challenges. It is a safe, online community where people support each other anonymously to improve mental health and wellbeing. Millions of people in the UK have access via their participating employer, university, college, NHS provider or local council. All armed forces personnel, veterans and their families (16+) also have free access. Eight out of ten members found the support from Togetherall’s professionals had helped them and 71% found Togetherall more helpful than other support they had accessed.

Early-stage tech for good venture capital firm Bethnal Green Ventures has supported a range of ventures tackling mental health problems. For example, Betwixt, which is a guided interactive adventure for smart phones that helps people build mental resilience in an accessible and exciting way. And Helsa, a platform that educates people about their mental wellbeing and uses proprietary matching technology to connect LGBTQ+ people to the therapists that are most qualified to support them. TalkLife is a peer-to-peer support network for young people to talk about the struggles of living with a mental health condition. During the pandemic they rolled out their product to universities across five continents and 25 languages to support students with their mental health and wellbeing.

We have also seen growth in startups providing mental health support through online partner platforms. For example, Spill, which raised a £2 million round led by Ada Ventures, provides all-in-one mental health support and is delivered through Slack. Spill is currently used by over 100 companies. Among people who did a course of six sessions on Spill, reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms was 41% and 52% (compared to 33% and 45% for antidepressants over the same period). One of the challenges in the mental health market is to make the support accessible to those that need it most, but in a way that they are not excluded from benefitting due to affordability constraint. By selling subscriptions to employers, Spill has been able to deliver support to people who would otherwise be unable to pay for it.

A powerful combination

As the examples above show, combining the best academic research, technology innovation and investment through the impact venture market has huge potential to unlock new opportunities for preventing mental ill-health. And through technology, those opportunities can be scaled up to help large numbers of people – in a way that can continue to deliver strong financial and social outcomes for investors.

We know impact can be a source of value for startups and investors and with the nation’s mental health reaching breaking point – there has never been a more critical time for the venture ecosystem to invest their capital, ideas and expertise in this space.  

To find out more about our work in impact venture visit: https://bigsocietycapital.com/our-approach/impact-venture/

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