Wave brings some science and sanity to the business of mental health

The kids aren’t alright. According to the founders of Wave, 75% of Gen Z is struggling with their emotional well-being. To be clear — not all of them are meeting the criteria for diagnosable mental health illnesses, but they do need a bit more than a firm handshake and a “keep going, son.” That’s the market Wave is primarily going after with its digital platform, which is taking an inclusivity-first approach to making tools and techniques available to young adults.

The app is launching to a public test audience early next year, and with a broader launch to a wider group of consumers later in the year. The company’s founder is Dr. Sarah Adler, a Stanford Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychologist. She is eager to tell the world about what the app will do, but is playing her cards a little guardedly until the app becomes available to the wider public. Adler has spent her career building innovative delivery models to increase access to care through user-centered design. She believes that data-informed, digital solutions paired with well-trained, lower-cost human capital, like health coaches, is the best way to deliver quality care at scale, especially for overlooked populations (think GSRM and BIPOC) traditionally left out of the conversation.

I asked Dr. Adler to give an example of the type of exercises the app would be able to provide.

“One of the things that we fundamentally believe comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based treatment for anxiety and depression. We believe that a lot of the poor decisions that we make in life, or the decisions that don’t make us feel really good, we do because of a lack of clarity about what’s important to us. A values clarification exercise is an exercise that you might do with your therapist if you have one, and you can afford to pay $250 an hour to do that. What we’ve done is we designed one that is much more engaging. It’s a video game-like experience where you’re going through a values clarification exercise, and at the end of it, we’ve evoked the emotion that we want to evoke neurochemically in your brain, the same way that you would do if you were sitting with me in a therapy session,” explains Dr. Adler. “When you have clarity on your values, you can start to piece together how to make decisions. What are the actions that I want to take, that are aligned with my greater values? Do I want to go out and binge drink with my friends tonight? By knowing my longer-term goals and values, I can reconcile my behaviors. That helps me make decisions.”

The company just announced it closed a $2 million pre-seed round late this summer. The round was led by Hannah Grey VC, with participation from K50 Ventures, Tribe Capital, Alumni Venture Group, Verissimo Ventures, Conscience VC and select strategic angels.

“There is a ton of funding pouring into mental health, over $2.5 billion in 2020 alone, to build and scale products that aren’t backed in science, not deeply mired in inclusive user experience, and not showing repeatable outcomes,” says Dr. Adler. “At Wave we aren’t just interested in the business metrics: the downloads, sign-ups and pilots, we are building for tangible results, with measurable outcomes for people who traditionally can’t get care.”

“We’re not fighting social media. We’re trying to integrate it with it. We believe that in order to address and engage these users, we need to meet them where they are — especially true for a generation that’s entirely tied to their phones. We call it our digital ecosystem and it integrates all of the best evidence-based content with immersive experiences that borrow from the best video game technology. I don’t mean token economies; what I mean is what the video game industry has learned about how to keep people engaged with things they have to learn,” explains Dr. Adler. “We create these immersive experiences and deliver them in a way that keeps people coming back to use it. Ultimately, that helps them get better.”