Irish-founded Woebot raises $90m for mental health chatbot

Start-up has developed a therapeutic chatbot that helps those with mental health issues

Woebot founder and UCD graduate Alison Darcy

Woebot founder and UCD graduate Alison Darcy

 

Irish-founded Woebot, a company that has developed a therapeutic chatbot, has raised $90 million (€76.4m) in investment as it looks to transform mental health care.

Founded in 2017 by University College Dublin graduate Alison Darcy, the San Francisco-headquartered company has developed what it calls a “relational agent”. This is an AI-powered chatbot capable of creating a therapeutic bond with users.

The result it that unlike most chatbots that are functional in nature, Woebot is capable of forming a strong, deep relationship with users and delivering human-like therapeutic responses to those experiencing mental health difficulties.

The financing, which brings total investment in the company to $114 million, will be used to accelerate development of its platform and to increase staff numbers as it looks to deal with a surge in demand for mental health solutions, arising in part from the Covid crisis.

Woebot, which has an operation in Dublin, intends to double headcount to 100 people over the next 24 months with about half of the new roles likely to be based locally.

Behavioural therapy

The idea for the cognitive behavioural therapy-trained chatbot came out of research conducted by Dr Darcy, a Stanford-trained clinical research psychologist. She later decided to take what she had discovered out of an academic setting and make it as widely accessible as possible.

“My ultimate hope is that everybody has a Woebot and it is a utility just like email that is tailored to the individual and so builds up a deep knowledge of who they are and provides quality support in the moments when they need it,” Dr Darcy told The Irish Times.

The investment, which has been co-led by Jazz Venture Partners and Temasek, comes on the heels of several major milestones for Woebot Health.

In May, the company’s WB001 solution, the first digital therapeutic designed to reduce the burden of postpartum depression, received US Food and Drug Administration breakthrough device designation, which provides a pathway to getting solutions to market faster.

In the same month, the company also published a significant large-scale study which provided strong evidence that Woebot establishes a therapeutic bond with users – a construct long thought to be the unique domain of human-to-human interactions. The study’s findings support the idea that AI and natural language processing (NLP) technologies have the power to help solve fundamental problems related to scalability and access to support and play a pivotal role in the transformation of mental health care delivery.

The company has also gained considerable media exposure with articles in publications that include The Irish Times, New York Times, CNBC, Newsweek and Forbes.

Michael Evers, who came on board as chief executive early last year, said he believes Woebot could become hugely successful.

“We think the company has the potential to be a long-term viable success, going all the way to an initial public offering (IPO),” Mr Evers said.

He said the pandemic had not only highlighted the need for mental health supports but also shown just how viable it was for these to be delivered in the way that Woebot is doing.

“Covid has obviously shown a spotlight on mental health and has accelerated a willingness to look at alternative solutions that provide a real practical response.”