Therapy Chatbot Startup Woebot Raises $90M
Chatbot therapist developer Woebot Health has closed a $90 million Series B funding round led by JAZZ Venture Partners and Temasek. The startup is the creator of an eponymous chatbot designed to forge a therapist-like bond with users and provide tools and help for improving and maintaining good mental health.
Woebot refers to the AI as a ‘relational agent’ to distinguish its relationship-centered focus, distinct from the more brisk, practical interactions people may be used to with standard business chatbots or voice assistants. The chatbot blends natural language processing with an AI trained to foster trust and emotional bonds with therapeutic techniques.
The four-year-old startup was founded in Ireland and still has an office in Dublin though its headquarters are now in San Francisco. The new finance round, which included participation by BlackRock Private Equity Partners and Owl Ventures, dwarfs earlier funding, bringing the total raised by Woebot to $114 million. The money is earmarked for technical and business development, especially new staff as demand has risen quickly, according to the company. The size of the round partly reflects Woebot’s success this year in earning the first FDA Breakthrough Device designation for its digital therapeutic tool created to ease the mental distress of postpartum depression.
“We’re at a moment when mental health issues are front and center in a global conversation, and there’s incredible momentum to apply cutting-edge approaches to help solve real human problems,” Woebot Health CEO Michael Evers said in a statement. “It’s gratifying that some of the world’s leading investment groups see the same potential for relational technologies to deeply engage people in their mental health at scale, and to transform care. We’re thrilled they are aligned on our core vision and energized by their commitment to advance the next frontier of technology-enabled mental health care.”
Healthcare-related chatbots mushroomed over the last year and a half accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical professionals and groups were eager to adopt chatbots to manage the rapid climb in demand combined with necessary limits on in-person staff. Coronavirus-focused virtual assistants to answer questions and perform triage are now largely here to stay, especially after the flurry of acquisitions and funding for relevant technology like Saykara and Suki. And while Nuance encompasses a lot of industries, its omnichannel virtual assistant platform for healthcare providers undoubtedly accounted for more than a little of the $19.7 billion Microsoft is paying for the company.
The potential for AI-supported mental healthcare has already fueled several projects. For instance, Microsoft set up a mental healthcare service program for older people using AI and virtual assistants in South Korea last year. Fulfilling at least some mental wellness needs is also regularly coupled with AI-based physical care. Boosting the mood of unwell people led to the creation of robot caretakers like temi or Mylo, which uses a cat’s face specifically to make people feel at ease and comfortable with the device. There’s also the much more human-shaped Grace, built by Singularity Studio and Hanson Robotics to converse on a range of topics, but built specifically as a physical and mental health support system. Woebot is notably lightweight physically, financially, and as a time investment compared to those examples.
Research has already shown the value of virtual assistants in promoting mental health by staving off loneliness. Studies by Project Zilver and Voice for Loneliness have shown that a voice assistant is a boon for older, potentially more isolated people in particular. And Woebot published a major study in May demonstrating how its chatbot can consistently nurture connections with people that evoke those that human therapists foster with patients.
“I’ve always believed that technology could be truly helpful at an emotional level, if it’s designed and delivered in a human-centered way,” Woebot Health founder and president Dr. Alison Darcy, said at the time. “The ability to establish a bond, and to do so with millions of people simultaneously, is the secret to unlocking the potential of digital therapeutics like never before. We’re excited to be at the forefront of this line of research.”