In 2011, Bjorn Lee was working 80- to 100-hour weeks for almost a year growing his Google-funded education startup when he started getting chest pains. “The potent cocktail of no exercise, constant sitting down and high stress levels caused my mental health to plummet and manifest into somatic, bodily pains around my chest,” Lee says. Fortunately, the doctor he saw prescribed meditation instead of drugs to solve the problem.

Five years later, after he had thrown himself back into the grind, the serial entrepreneur took a year’s sabbatical to regroup and reflect “I sought more meaning in my life,” he shares and realised that, based on his own experiences, mental health was a personal pain point that had long-term commercial and social impact. Thus, he started, a data-driven mindfulness platform designed for companies.

Its unique proposition: a proprietary AI algorithm that gives recommendations based on each person’s “unique psychometric profile, with accuracy enhanced by the user’s daily steps, sleep, mood, breathing, and heart rates.”

With October being World Mental Health month, we chat with Lee on the business of mental health and how his AI actually works.

(Related: Mental health avenues and tips to get you through this trying pandemic period)

MindFi is a data-driven app that picks up specific data points from your life to provide mental wellness recommendations. Credit: MindFi.
MindFi is a data-driven app that picks up specific data points from your life to provide mental wellness recommendations. Credit: MindFi.

How has grown in the past four years, especially during the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, we were focused on the consumer segment of mental health and only saw linear growth and poor capital efficiency because of the high acquisition costs from mobile ads. We were very lucky to see corporate customers approach us at the start of the pandemic to change our product for their workforce needs. We have grown 50 per cent month on month over the past 6 months with APAC-based Fortune 500 clients in sectors such as finance, technology and healthcare.

Why do you think there is such a huge focus on mental health issues now?

It’s a confluence of media education that gives rise to a new social vocabulary of describing this unspoken, ambient sense of dread and stress that plagues and permeates our “new” lifestyle at work and home today. Losing personal and business travel has curtailed our freedoms and made us realise how privileged we were.

At the beginning, it must have been hard to pitch and grow the business of mental health, especially since it was – and still is – stigmatised. How did you overcome this challenge?

Some of our corporate clients are early adopters, many of whom are senior management or the CEO themselves! They have experienced a severe period of stress or depression and identify with my personal story of chest-induced chest pains. The bigger challenge is to convince the wider workforce. We rely on a personality mix of doctors, health coaches and internal company ambassadors to help us spread awareness and action across the workforce. It’s an ongoing process, but we are slowly chipping away at the stigma.

Why should business leaders and CEOs consider mental health as an important metric?

“It’s lonely at the top” is a trope among senior leaders in every field. It is humanly impossible for one person to absorb so many demands and responsibilities from their staff, fans, voters, or customers. Hence, the most important organ that we need to train is our mind. Only when we can be calm and rational, that we can then make the best decision in a measured and intelligent manner rather than something impulsive and rash, such as a 3am tweet (laughs).

Tell me more about the proprietary AI algorithm and how it works.

My CTO and Chief Psychologist are the brains behind the AI. The former spent years at Singapore’s top government research lab, A*STAR, working at the intersection of mental health and AI, while the latter spent her career working with clients and patients at Raffles Hospital, Banyan Tree, and non-profits.

We are building a giant library of mental health phenotypes by collecting, analysing and predicting data from our daily smartphone interactions, self-reported assessments and wearable data – all done with 100 per cent care for data privacy and security.

We constantly benchmark our accuracy to the research world and we are making significant progress in exceeding them. This is a very new and exciting field for mental health products. We are constantly improving the accuracy, but it will be a multi-year journey, if not longer.

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