Ginger, an MIT spin-out providing app-based mental health coaching to workers, raises $35M

Mental health issues are thought to impact one in every five people in the U.S., and the stress of working life can be an exacerbating factor. Now, one of the startups that’s using technology to build ways to support this population has raised a significant round of funding to expand its platform to aid in getting them the help they need.

Ginger, a startup that works with organizations and their healthcare providers to provide employees with an app-based way to connect with coaches to talk through their issues and suggest ways forward, is today announcing that it has raised $35 million in a Series C round of funding, money that it will use both to expand the data science behind its therapy programs and the variety of its clinical programs, as well in terms of its business opportunities. The plan is to grow its service internationally and to more touch points beyond the employer channel, including those who access healthcare through health plans (which might include, potentially, countries with nationalised health services).

The funding is a Series C being led by WP Global Partners (an investment firm that backs companies — for example, it also is an investor in Postmates — as well as other funds), with participation from some of a number of other new and previous high-profile investors that include City Light Capital, Nimble Ventures, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Khosla Ventures, Kaiser Permanente Ventures and Kapor Capital.

“As the global mental health crisis intensifies and access challenges increase, employers are searching for solutions to address the shortage of affordable, available providers,” said Russell Glass, CEO of Ginger, in a statement. “In building the world’s first virtual behavioral health system, we are reinventing the approach with instant access to care. This latest round of funding accelerates our ability to expand high-quality care — any time of day or night — to millions of people around the world.”

It brings the total raised by Ginger to $63 million; the company is not disclosing valuation (we’re asking), but it has been growing at a very steady clip and says that more than 200,000 people are able to access the service by way of their employers’ Ginger plans. Ginger says that customers include CBS, Netflix, Pinterest, Sephora, Twilio, Yelp and BuzzFeed, and it’s now active in 25 countries outside the U.S., including major markets like the U.K., Japan, Australia, Canada and India.

Founded nearly a decade ago as a spin-out from the MIT Media Lab, Ginger started life initially with a platform that would monitor a user’s smartphone interactions to detect potential mental health issues and help connect that user with someone to talk to. This lean-forward approach appears to have been retired in favor of a service that relies on the users themselves making the first move.

That first move comes in the form of a text message, which an employee can send 24/7 and receive an immediate response. That in itself is notable: The traditional way of going about speaking to a counselor or therapist that you might get through your work’s health insurance can take up to 25 days for your first appointment, Ginger notes, by which point the problem that got you interested in speaking to someone in the first place may have become significantly worse.

While some users keep their coaching — this is the word used by Ginger itself, and I think the reason is because it helps to differentiate this from in-person, more classic therapy sessions, and because the people who are trained to work with you might not actually be doctors — to texts, others may get referred up the ladder to other mediums, such as video therapy and video psychiatry with licensed clinicians.

The latter is a route that applies to some 8% of Ginger’s users, the company says, with the rest resolving issues through the text-based coaching. Time with clinicians is guaranteed to be provided within a 72-hour window.

On the other side of the issue of getting to speak to someone, Ginger also offers options for people to reach out and book coaching and therapy sessions outside of work hours (which presumably is a bonus both to the employer as well as to employees who are less keen to disrupt work or keep their therapy to themselves).

The approach seems to work: Ginger says that some 70% of members surveyed that have used Ginger reported “a significant reduction in symptoms of depression within 12 weeks.”

Overall, app-based and other health services that do not require a person to physically be in the same room as his/her therapist still face a perennial problem that is a hallmark of many a mental health service: They still require a person to “turn up” so to speak — that is, a person at some point needs to make the proactive effort to reach out for help, and usually continue to work on resolving the problem on a persistent and regular basis.

Teletherapy solutions have both an advantage and disadvantage: being something you can pick up wherever and whenever makes it something that maybe we are more likely to use; but the lack of physical presence may well make it much easier for problems to be less apparent. In a sense, the mandate is even more on the likely vulnerable patient to be even more proactive as a result.

But the cost to employers of rolling out wide-scale, physical programs with licensed clinicians, as well as of having too many people off work due to mental health issues, are the rock and hard place that will likely continue to fuel significantly more development of services like Ginger’s and those of its competitors.

And that list is a long one, with other startups like Lyra Health (founded by the former CFO of Facebook Dave Ebersman), Unmind, Pacifica, Huddle, Modern Health and Eliza all also closing in on the challenge.

Ginger’s investors believe in the mission and that its horse is one that will run the course.

“We have significant experience investing in healthcare and believe that technology is the key to solving the global mental health crisis,” said Donald Phillips, chairman and CEO of WP Global Partners, in a statement. “As we looked to expand our portfolio, it became clear to us that there is no other company in the world that provides emotional and mental health support as quickly and effectively as Ginger does.”