Mental health issues affect one in four Americans today. In 2013, the United States spent $201 billion treating mental disorders, the highest across all medical conditions – and this figure is expected to rise to $280.5 billion by 2020.
Having emigrated from South Korea when she was four, where the suicide rate is amongst the highest in the world, April Koh felt a deep personal connection to mental health issues. April has seen her friends experiment with multiple treatments, drugs, and even providers before finding something that works for them.
She believes her startup, Spring Health, can solve the expensive, painful problem of trial-and-error in recovering from mental health conditions.
Spring uses AI and machine learning to predict effective treatments. This minimizes the costly trial-and-error currently needed in the recovery process. Despite tackling a big challenge in a complex industry, Spring has already raised $2 million, published four peer-reviewed papers, and took home social innovation prizes from Yale University, Harvard i-Lab, and the American Psychiatric Association.
Here are a few keys to Spring’s early success that young entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place can learn from.
- Become Best Friends with Your Co-Founders
2 years after April dropped out of Yale to pursue an entertainment-related startup, she realized that she wanted to pursue something that made a clearer impact.
Having seen her friends experience the frustration of trying pill after pill in hopes of finding recovery for their mental health conditions, she decided to tackle the mental health space.
April met her co-founding team for Spring after returning to school, and attributes the cohesion of Spring’s leadership team to their friendship.
“My co-founder Adam Chekroud is an expert on AI applications in psychiatry and previously published several papers on the topic,” mentioned April, “and (CTO) Abhishek Chandra is one of the best coders I know – and as a coder myself, my standards are high.”
While it is easy for CEOs to feel like they need to do everything at all times, the Spring team is able to effectively delegate leadership roles because of an inherent trust.
“I’m best friends with my co-founders, and that’s why we work well together,” said April. “We all have vastly different expertise, but we work really well together because we can operate on a level of trust that’s only found between friends.”
- Have Advisors and Teammates with Complementary Skillsets
April attributes a big part of her startup’s early success in the notoriously complex world of healthcare to working with people who have more experience than she does.
“An advantage to being a young founder is that it makes you humble and hungry for talent,” said April. “Our principle is always try to hire people that we want to work for, and that usually means people who have vastly more experience than we do.”
April takes her company’s principle to heart when assembling the leadership team. Spring’s Chief Medical Officer, for instance, has had 20 years of experience in healthcare IT. The other two co-founders bring to the table years of technical expertise and scientific knowledge.
April also highlights the guidance her advisors have provided Spring in the past. To navigate the complicated medical industry, the emergent healthcare AI field, and the ever-changing startup landscape, April reached out to veterans in all three fields for help. Throughout the past year, Spring built a three-pronged board of clinical, scientific, and business advisors to make sure they have support on all fronts.
- Build for the Right Early Adopters
When tackling an industry-wide problem, trying to change the way the whole industry operates right away is bound to be a challenge.
In the beginning, Spring focused on offering primary care doctors and their health systems an efficient alternative to predict treatment outcomes. Though Spring was addressing a pressing need, changing clinical workflows was a slow process.
“Health systems are risk-averse for a reason, and doctors can’t just change clinical workflows right away.” said April.
Last quarter, a large company approached Spring to build a custom mental health benefit platform for its employees. Realizing that companies, rather than doctors, might be the right early adopters, Spring shifted its approach to building full-stack mental health solutions for companies.
Its platform screens employees for mental health conditions, identifies the right care for them, and then matches them to high quality care providers, whose decision-making is guided by Spring’s predictive algorithms.
According to April, interest from large corporations has been unexpectedly strong. It turns out employers have recently started seeking high quality mental health solutions for their employees, especially as anxiety grows in reaction to global events.
“You shouldn’t just build a product just because you think it will provide value to the world,” said April, “you should also listen to what the customers actually want, figure out who are the right people paying for your product, and build your vision around that.“
- Don’t Try to Fit a Mold
When asked for advice for young women founders tackling challenges in male-dominated fields like medicine and technology, April believes being true to oneself is key.
“I used to think that females have to force themselves to fit a defined mold in order to succeed in the startup and medical worlds,” April said, “that was until I met all kinds of amazing women in both fields that changed my mind.”
She added, “While it is important to contribute to the discussion of equality, very little comes from my focusing on how I am disadvantaged as a female founder all the time. The key to me is always to be yourself, focus on the problem you’re tackling, and not try to fit one mold.”
Story originally published on HuffPost.