🧠 Introducing 'On The Mind'

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.

Here’s what’s included in issue No. 1:

  • Insights from the founder of a support app with 70K+ users

  • Recent investments in mental health and wellness startups

  • How depression is screened by clinicians

  • How to introduce and maintain habits with a simple tool

🎙️ Interview with Georgia Messinger, Founder of Trill Project

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

In early 2018, Georgia Messinger was still a senior in high school. She was heading to Harvard in the Fall to study psychology and computer science and was trying to figure out how to spend her last few months before heading to college. She soon met Ari Sokolov, and the two discussed the idea of creating a safe community for the LGBTQ+ population to share coming out stories, especially for those living in less accepting areas.

Georgia and Ari built off that idea to co-found Trill Project (“Trill” is a combination of the words true and real), an anonymous social networking app that serves as a virtual support community. Today, the Trill Project app is used by over 70,000 people and maintains 4.5 stars with over 1.3K ratings on the Apple App Store.

I recently spoke with Georgia to learn more.

How did you grow Trill Project from an idea into its current state?

Everything started with a post on Tumblr collecting email addresses from the LGBTQ+ community to participate in a space to share coming out stories (this was before we even had a product). From there, we began building out the product with the beta testers who provided their emails and scaled through word of mouth referrals. We eventually joined a pitch competition at UCLA, where we won a grant for $50K to develop the app. We launched Trill Project on the Apple App Store in June 2018 and followed with the Google Play Store in June 2019.

How does the product work?

The app is 100% anonymous - you choose a color to determine your identity when you sign up. Our most popular feature is messaging; people connect over shared interests and struggles. Users engage with a chronological feed of posts, virtual support groups (such as LGBTQ+, Anxiety, Relationships), and longer-form content published twice per week.

You have over 70,000 users. Who are they?

We don’t collect user data so we don’t know a lot. We only get an email and password, and the sole metric we have is what we call the ‘support score’ - a measure of how supportive the user is being within the community. However, through some sentiment analysis, social media followings, and small pockets of Apple device data, we have learned a bit. Our users are mainly 17-24, struggling with their mental health, and are seeking new friends. While it started with a majority LGBTQ+ population, they’re now about 30% of our user base. 95% of our users are US-based, but we have representation across more than 42 countries.

Without collecting user data, how do you measure success and plan for growth?

We’ve had to come to terms with who we are. We’re building something entirely new and different from Facebook - we don’t necessarily want people logging in and staying on as long as possible. There are some traditional measures we can use such as number of posts, comments, or engagement with our published content, but we care more about measuring the effectiveness of the community’s support. For that, we have the user support scores, clicks on crisis resources, and surveys distributed twice per year to collect more qualitative responses.

How do you maintain a safe and positive community that’s entirely anonymous?

The first aspect is our human moderators. We have an in-depth moderator training with therapists and mental health experts that aims to create empathetic peer listeners. In Summer 2019, we participated in Target’s incubator and worked with their Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to develop our community guidelines. The second aspect is our machine learning algorithm. When posts are reported, the post indicates whether the user is being harmed, harming another, or harming themselves, and customized crisis resources are provided accordingly. For example, if a user posts about self-harming or suicidal thoughts, our algorithm will recognize that with 86% accuracy and intervene with a message of support and love.

So what’s your business model - how do you make money?

The primary business model is B2B, white labelling the Trill Project product for companies and other private communities. We charge an upfront fee for design changes such as customized color packs. We’ve worked with one client so far, a psychedelics wellness company called Oro, where you could imagine users might share experiences with different dosages anonymously. We are also looking to roll out use cases in university settings, such as with Greek life or as a traditional HR function add-on.

How much have you raised? What’re your plans from here?

We’ve raised a total of $120K through non-dilutive grants and fundraisers. Nobody on our team takes a salary, so our operating budget is essentially $0. The biggest constraint moving forward for us is having the time to dedicate, considering our current team is at a fluid place in life. Whether we continue expanding our B2B model or find a new home for the underlying technology, there are a variety of potential use cases to explore with schools, corporations, and non-profits. Our underlying mission remains unchanged - to make the internet a safer space for everyone.

Though the company is still in its early stages, it’s impressive what Georgia and her team have accomplished in the last couple of years. I’m particularly excited about three characteristics they’ve weaved into the product: anonymity, peer support, and machine learning. These attributes are popping up across several mental health startups and will play a significant role in the future of mental health.

💰 Recent Investments

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

ICYMI - Slightly dated investments from the past few weeks.

📖 Interesting Reads

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

  • Capturing the stress of 2020 through Google Trends (Link)

  • Water and Music’s Cherie Hu published an in-depth piece that’ll intrigue anyone interested in the gaming or music industries (Link)

  • Video gaming can benefit mental health and wellbeing, according to one Oxford study - are you still playing Animal Crossing? (Link)

  • Stephen Hays of What If Ventures shares 10 practical tips for pitching mental health startups (Link)

  • The Internet Archive has built a collection of Adobe Flash artifacts as Adobe is set to decommission the product. Remember Crimson Room? Line Rider? Scroll through the collection for nostalgia from the early days of the internet (Link)

  • The race for a coronavirus vaccine (Link)

  • Living with Larry David through a pandemic (Link)

🩺 Clinical Coverage

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

How is depression actually clinically validated? It’s less complex than you might expect.

The American Academy of Family Physicians primarily relies on two Patient Healthcare Questionnaires (PHQs), PHQ-2 and PHQ-9.

The PHQ-2 is used as the initial screening:

The PHQ-9 is used if the PHQ-2 produces a positive result. The PHQ-9 contains seven additional screening questions to the two in the above image.

The questionnaires are useful for screening but clearly have limitations as the sole input for diagnosis. Reliability of the inputs is subject to the mood of respondents at the time of the screening, and the respondents’ honesty in their replies.

There are a variety of mental health technology startups investigating new ways of measuring mental health issues such as depression, as well as how to collect response data more accurately and frequently (e.g., ingesting data from mobile phones, smartwatches, voice biomarker devices, etc.).

🧠 Mindfulness Tip of the Week

Tips to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

Have you heard of ‘the X effect’? It’s a productivity tactic that helps incorporate and maintain habits. I’ve personally had a lot of success with it.

It’s simple - you make a grid for the habit you want to be held accountable to, and then cross it off with an ‘X’ when you do it. There’s a massive Reddit community with over 55K users employing the X effect.

Different people choose to capture it in different ways - some handwritten, some more automated. Try it out for yourself to help build a new habit.

On Your Mind

I’d love your feedback - feel free to email me at tarockoff@berkeley.edu.

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.