"There's no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health," says Alyson Watson. "It's about meeting people where they are and figuring out what works for them."

Alyson Watson

Image caption: Alyson Watson, A&S ’12, founder and CEO of Modern Health

Credit: Photograph courtesy of Alyson Watson

Alyson Watson, A&S '12, says there are two types of entrepreneurs: consummate serial problem-solvers and those with a deep, abiding passion for a specific issue. Watson sees herself as the latter.

A born entrepreneur, Watson was the kid who opened a lemonade stand and sold painted rocks door to door. The daughter of two physicians, she was always interested in health. She struggled with anxiety—particularly as an athlete at Johns Hopkins, where she played lacrosse—which kindled her interest in mental health. She knew from experience that finding a practitioner, much less paying for services, is challenging.

In 2017, Watson founded Modern Health to remove barriers to mental health resources with an easy-to-use mobile app. Users sign up through their employer, take a quick, in-app assessment, and answer a few questions. An algorithm triages each user to the right level of care and privately connects them to resources. It has more than 145 corporate customers including Lyft, NextDoor, and Pixar.

Modern Health lets users be proactive about their mental health before they reach a crisis point. The traditional path to a mental health provider can be byzantine, while Modern Health engages people the way they are accustomed to accessing information today—on a mobile device, in real time, with the ability to customize. Watson says it "makes mental health cool."

What inspired you to begin Modern Health?

I always wanted to start a company, and I was told I had to move to this place called Silicon Valley. I booked a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and it was a complete disaster. I lost my job, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me, my apartment flooded, so I literally had nowhere to live. I was hugely depressed and realized I should go find a therapist. Through all that, a key insight I learned was when things happen to us, it's really about how you respond. It's about building resilience, so when these things happen you can put one foot in front of the other. I had friends and family around me who encouraged me to keep going, but many people don't [have this level of support]. That's when the lightbulb went off for me that there had to be a better way to proactively engage people in their mental health.

What problem did you set out to solve?

There is a shortage of therapists, globally, and most therapists don't accept insurance because the reimbursement rates are so low. What ends up happening is that who sees a therapist is based on who can afford one, not clinical need.

How is Modern Health more effective?

We built a platform that triages individuals to the right level of care. We personalize the experience either through digital programs such as guided meditation or audio therapy, evidence-based courses for stress management, or behavioral health coaching. Or the app can triage people with a more clinical need directly into therapy. In addition, we've introduced community sessions, almost like group therapy. Our mental health coaches are all virtual, via video or chat, through the app. Therapy in a pre-COVID world was about 50-50 in-person versus virtual.

Why did you target worker health specifically?

Mental illness impacts 25% of the whole population and that has an impact on businesses' bottom line. Mental health is the No. 1 cause of disability worldwide. We have a global offering working with employers all over the world, but in the U.S. people think about getting support through their health insurance, which is typically provided by their employer. Naturally there was a desire on the employer side to support that.

Why do you offer things like meditation and coaching in addition to conventional therapy?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. It's about meeting people where they are and figuring out what works for them, whether that's meeting a coach virtually, meeting a therapist, listening to a meditation, or taking a self-directed course that's evidence-based to treat stress. You have to offer these different solutions across a full spectrum of need so you can engage the broadest population.

You work with major brands like Pixar. How did you build such a successful brand so quickly?

It's about getting early adopters who believe in your mission and take a chance on you. Having them have a good experience and also giving us feedback on our product and our platform allowed us to iterate much faster. You get those first customers by sharing the mission and vision with them and pushing them to take a chance. Once they've had an amazing experience with Modern Health, that drives more customer referrals.

There remains a glass ceiling for female entrepreneurs, particularly where capital is concerned. How have you successfully raised, thus far, $45 million?

First, you need a support system around you of other women leaders who have done it before and can help guide you. Beyond that, you need mentors who have been success¬ful raising capital. I was very fortunate that my husband [Matt Watson, A&S '12, CEO of Origin, a financial well-being platform] had gone through this before and has helped and guided me.

Second, you need to play to your strengths. I think women feel they need to lean into a technical or engineering trait, that shows, "Hey, I can build this thing myself." If you look at the most successful women CEOs—CEOs of StitchFix, Spanx— those women played to their strengths, which may have been sales, operations, or marketing. The biggest thing for me was not trying to be someone I'm not. Investors believed in me for the strengths I had, and if not, they weren't a good investor fit for me.

That begs the question: What are your strengths?

Getting people excited about the mission who are experts in their field and then giving them autonomy to let them shine. I'd also say execution. I think if you get the right people on the bus and they have bought in—it's unstoppable.

How is the pandemic impacting your business?

We did state-of-the-industry mental health research in the COVID era and found 57% of adults said they have experienced more stress and anxiety during COVID than at any other time in their lives. Over half of respondents said that they'd be more willing to seek mental health support than before the pandemic and that their workplace needs to be more understanding of that. We've seen more activity on our platform and more employers investing in mental health for their employees. We feel very fortunate we're in a position to help people at this moment of greatest need.

What remains a challenge for you (outside the pandemic)?

At the end of the day, human capital is your biggest asset. Taking care of employees and building a culture that's in line with the mission is incredibly important and that becomes a challenge as you scale. The other is around staying lean and efficient. As you raise more capital it can be tempting to hire to solve your problems, but it's important to be methodical. Adding bodies won't solve problems. We need to stay diligent in our hiring and stay efficient and strategic in our investments as we grow.