🧠 Chew On This

The latest on the business of mental health and wellness

Welcome to On The Mind, a collection of stories, news, and analyses on the startups, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

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Here’s what’s included in issue No. 12:

  • Managing stress, anxiety, and overwhelm with a chewable solution

  • A deeper look into GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain

  • Reframing the to-do list to focus on what to avoid

🎙️ Interview with Zak Williams, Co-Founder and CEO of Prepare Your Mind (PYM)

Conversations with founders, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

Many people were affected by the surprising death of the late Robin Williams nearly 7 years ago. In addition to being a household name as a comedian and actor, he was a father, and that loss was much more personal for his son Zak.

After his father’s death, Zak struggled with anxiety and depression and turned to alcohol to cope. Through his own healing process, he found purpose in his role as a mental health advocate and went on to build Prepare Your Mind (PYM), a company looking to create an accessible consumer product that can prevent mental health breakdowns. PYM, whose first product is a “mood chew,” supports feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm with an adaptogen and amino acid-packed citrus-flavored chewable. 🍋

It seems like you do a lot - an investor, entrepreneur, advocate. Could you talk a bit about your role in the mental health space?

I was diagnosed with PTSD after my dad died by suicide, and was experiencing a lot of issues with anxiety and depression. That’s originally what led me to do a lot of work on the advocacy side in the mental health space.

Career-wise I had stints at EA and Condé Nast, but mostly I’ve worked in the world of entrepreneurship and startups. I’m a student of the school of figuring shit out. I just immersed myself into it all and started talking to people. PYM is a mental health company, though it’s also in the consumer space.

When it comes to investing, I’m actually not sector-focused on mental health despite having some investments in the space. I’m primarily interested in consumer, with a limited focus on SaaS just because of my passion for machine learning. I was a computational linguistics major at NYU as an undergraduate which has played into that.

How has that shaped your investment philosophy and where you see opportunity?

I think a lot about ethical automation, for one. It’s an extremely important part of the next stage of software experiences. I’d rather see a future where technological extensions support people rather than making human labor obsolete.

Computers and software are exponentially powerful when it comes to certain applications, but I’m really interested in what happens when you add humans to the mix - working together it creates a multiplier.

The initial paradigm of capitalism was around wealth being most concentrated around those with a means of production. The question is, what’s the emerging paradigm? I have a set of assertions that the next wave of wealth will be concentrated around those with a means of automation. If you have an opportunity to surround yourself with those who create a democratized model of distributing the means of automation, you’re giving people a fighting chance as AI bleeds more into our everyday lives.

Interesting stuff. Though you ended up founding a company in the CPG space. Why’d you decide on building there for PYM?

CPG is less constricted from a distribution perspective. It’s easily accessible and we wanted a wide reach.

We also saw that there’s white space for mental health products on the prevention side. If you’re having a mental health issue, before you go and seek clinical support, it’s actually reasonably likely that there’s an imbalance you could fix before carpet bombing your whole system.

We’re a bit of a unique creature in that we don’t feel our product is a cure all. The CPG world provides a space for us to be a catalyst in pushing people into a mental health hygiene ritual. We really just want people to start thinking about mental health.

Got it. So let’s dig more into the company. Why’d you start PYM and what exactly are you building?

When I was at my low point I was self-medicating with alcohol which was not sustainable. If I took alcohol out of the situation though, I was extremely stressed and anxious and all I could find were artificial protocols as alternatives.

I created PYM to fill the space where I saw a gap for myself. We’re a mission-oriented advocacy-focused brand that provides products that are at the frontier of efficacy and safety. It started in 2019, which I spent formulating the actual chewable, and we launched our first product in early 2020.

We have an awesome team and people seem to like our product. We’re finding interesting use cases, such as people using the mood chews to ween off of anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax. We also have a broader vision than just the mood chews - we’re looking to provide the inputs to an experiential therapeutic protocol that goes beyond what’s standard today. We’re in the process of creating a companion app, for example, which will serve to provide some diagnostics as well as be a community hub. A potential future treatment option might be a mix of PYM chewables, software, and therapy. We’ll also be working on clinical studies, and are in the process of establishing PYM as a medical food, which would then allow a doctor to prescribe our product for a given disease state, and insurance companies to provide reimbursement.

What's actually in the mood chews?

We worked with a food scientist to develop the chews, which interact primarily with the endocrine system focused on the GABA system, with secondary interactions with the serotonin and dopamine systems.

There are three core active ingredients in the original formulation. GABA, a naturally occuring neurotransmitter in the brain, which helps you better modulate information and manage anxiety and overwhelm. L-Theanine, which interacts with the brain’s default mode network, reducing rumination, future tripping, and anxiety. And then Rhodiola, a natural neuroprotective compound, which helps the body manage stress and anxiety.

What’s a misconception you think people have about mental health?

Historically, a lot of people have thought about mental health as taking care of a condition. I’m anxious, so I take Valium. I have trauma, so I go to therapy.

I’m an advocate for a more systems-based approach. It’s not about fixing one symptom and moving on. I think as we better understand the individual as a system, we’ll see that different levels of that system require different levels of support. People are beginning to warm up to this idea rather than taking a curative lens, but I think it’s still a large misconception today.

Do you have any advice for founders in the mental health space?

First and foremost, you need to talk to as many people as you can.

And if you’re starting a company, you need to understand what the actual needs of your customers are so that you’re solving a real problem. Which goes back to the first point on talking to as many people as possible.

When you get more specific with mental health founders, I think it’s important to understand the economics of the supply side, especially when you rely on clinical support. How many psychiatrists or therapists or other clinicians do you need to deliver high-quality care, and how much time is needed to support each individual? How are telehealth experiences changing those dynamics?

To me the two most important pieces to the future of mental health are parity when it comes to accessing high quality care, and precision-oriented care that’s more targeted and effective. Founders in the space will find opportunity by addressing those areas while also getting creative and bringing something new to the world.

🩺 Clinical Coverage

Discussion of clinical concepts, studies, or perspectives on mental health and wellbeing.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain. It blocks specific signals in the central nervous system, slowing down the brain. This provides a protective and calming effect on the brain and body.”

As with many supplements, the benefits of GABA supplements remain a topic of debate, and it’s unclear whether the positive effects people experience are driven more by the placebo effect than the GABA itself.

A systematic review of oral GABA administration studies on stress and sleep in humans looked for existing experimental evidence. The findings showed some support for stress reduction and very limited support for improved sleep. Of nearly 6,000 publications reviewed, the researchers whittled it down to just 14 studies that met their inclusion criteria examining the consumption of natural or biosynthetic GABA and its effects on stress or sleep in humans. The outcomes of those 14 studies can be found here for those interested in digging deeper.

So, it’s still up for debate whether GABA supplements actually reduce stress or improve sleep, but the underlying mechanism by which GABA interacts with GABAa and GABAb receptors is well understood. And to explain it far better than I ever could, here’s a video from 2-minute neuroscience:

In short, GABA tells our neurons to chill out. Increased GABA activity reduces the chance a neuron fires an action potential, resulting in sedative, calming effects.

💰 Recent Investments, Acquisitions, and IPOs

Rundown of recent investment news in mental health and wellness companies.

📖 Interesting Reads

Sometimes mental health-related. Sometimes just things I find interesting.

  • How do you compare to the average person? Than Average

  • A day in the life of a flavor scientist. BBC

  • Visualizing how what we eat has changed. FlowingData

  • Not just Winter Blues, now there’s Summertime Sadness. NYTimes

  • How to design a better body. GQ

  • Looking into the social media cryptocurrency, BitClout. The New Yorker

  • Always willing to buy into the belief that coffee is good for you ☕️. NYTimes

  • Deep dive into the history of house music. Beatportal

  • In celebration of ‘Dave’ Season 2, here’s a profile of Lil Dicky. GQ

  • Pretty brutal stories from Airbnb visits, and the team responsible for keeping it quiet. Bloomberg

  • Calm - the app that monetized doing nothing. The Atlantic

  • Extraneural resources challenge where the bounds of our own minds and thought processes really are. NYTimes

  • What happens when someone wins a $731M lottery in a small town? Washington Post

  • Following the money going into startups targeting addiction. Crunchbase

  • An interesting look inside MSCHF’s take on streetwear. Esquire

  • Finally, an explanation for why I’m not rich (yet). MIT Technology Review

  • OpenAI’s Codex is the GPT-3 for coding. The Verge

  • Joe Rogan’s continued rise. NYTimes

  • Peter Thiel’s $5B Roth IRA. ProPublica

🧠 Mindfulness Tip of the Week

Tips to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

This week’s tip is borrowed from Ness Labs’ Anne-Laure Le Cunff, author of an awesome newsletter called Maker Mind (check it out here).

Anne-Laure writes about a new mental model you can apply to improve your productivity: the opposite of a to-do list, a “not-to-do list.”

Developing your not-to-do list is an exercise that allows you to consciously avoid the tasks you consistently find yourself wasting time and energy on. “Generally, you want to add to your not-to-do list anything that is emotionally draining, out of your control, bad for your health, detrimental to your relationships with others, or has little impact on the value of your output.”

Here’s my own not-to-do list:

  1. Do not check your phone while you’re in bed (on waking up, or falling asleep).

  2. Do not schedule back-to-back Zoom meetings.

  3. Do not keep the Instagram app on your phone.

  4. Do not force yourself to complete something you start reading if it’s not good.

  5. Do not make plans if you’re not excited about them.

  6. Do not worry (too much) about spending money if it’s an investment in your health or happiness.

For more guidance, check out Anne-Laure’s original post here.

On Your Mind

Email me at tarockoff@berkeley.edu with any reactions to the newsletter.

If you’re working on something in mental health and wellness, let’s talk. You can book some time with me here.

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Written by Daniel Tarockoff, an MBA student at UC Berkeley and former healthcare strategy consultant exploring the future of mental health. Born in Michigan. Based in Berkeley, CA.