When Brandon Staglin turned 18 in 1990, his life took a dramatic turn. He came home that summer from his freshman year at Dartmouth College tormented by grief – he’d just broken up with his first girlfriend. Soon, the heartache shifted to anxiety, with symptoms that seemed to worsen by the day. As more weeks passed, these feelings ballooned into hallucinations, and Staglin began to have what he describes as “bizarre sensations and ideas in my head.” He couldn’t sleep, and he felt as if one side of his brain had shut down. As exhaustion and despair took hold, he began thinking about taking his life.

One night he found himself wandering the streets and was picked up by police.  With the help of friends, he checked into a psychiatric hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medications. Six months of trial and error followed. Doctors tried different medications and doses, balancing the side effects, until he found stability.

Staglin’s recovery was aided by two big advantages: his family’s love and their resources. “The unconditional love of my family made me want to get well again and understand that there was much left to discover in the world,” he said. His parents, Napa Valley winemakers Shari and Garen Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard, could afford to get him the care he needed.

One Mind President Brandon Staglin introducing the companies at the Demo Day in Menlo Park. Photo: Noelle Serper.

 The experience changed the lives of the Staglin family and gave them a new mission. They saw the unmet needs of people like their son and, in 1995, they launched One Mind, a nonprofit organization that works to advance mental health research. In 2005 One Mind began awarding annual $300,000 “Rising Star” grants to early career scientists doing innovative, “high risk” research that had potential to accelerate breakthroughs treating psychiatric disorders. They raised funds with a yearly music festival and symposium at the Staglin’s vineyard.

This year, One Mind extended its investment by launching the One Mind Accelerator – an effort to help launch fledgling mental health companies. One Mind invested $100,000 into each of 11 early-stage start-ups and sponsored a 10-week program that enabled the company founders to work with each other and with mentors, sharpening their business plans and refining their pitches. Team-building workshops, networking and panel discussions fostered a sense of community. A focus on “co-creating with the lived experience community” aimed to ensure that the services and products developed by the companies addressed real needs. The goal was to spawn companies that accelerate the translation of new scientific insights into real-world treatments and services that can improve the lives of people grappling with mental illness.

Demo Day

On a recent Wednesday evening in Menlo Park, Brandon Staglin, now One Mind’s president, mingled with investors and mental health advocates over herbal tea and glasses of his family’s wine. The event, dubbed Demo Day, offered the 11 founders and their teams a chance to showcase the companies and their progress. Each founder presented a quick pitch outlining their company’s core concept and business plan.  

Founders and friends: The One Mind Accelerator teams posed for a group photo at Demo Day on May 3, 2023 in Menlo Park, CA. Photo: Noelle Serper

Even before Covid, mental health challenges had been rising steadily for a decade, particularly among teens, young adults, and communities of color. The pandemic accelerated these trends. Rates of eating disorders, suicide rates and opioid overdoses exploded. A May 2022 White House report on mental health found that half of women and a third of men reported a decrease in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. Such challenges, the report found, have been particularly acute among young adults – about 50% of whom reported symptoms of depression – and people of color.

The mental health crisis has helped spawn a booming market for mental health-related companies and technology. A 2022 report by ResearchAndMarkets.com estimated the current market value of the U.S. mental wellness industry at $100 billion, growing to $150 billion by 2028. But relatively few companies in this space are aimed at people with serious mental health diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, said Carmine Di Maro, the One Mind Accelerator’s director.

“The low-hanging fruit has been wellness, and we’re supporting companies going after the hardest problems,” Di Maro said. “The portfolio of companies is embracing the converging of artificial intelligence and new neurotechnology [to develop] long-term diagnostics and treatments.”

With the worsening mental health crisis in focus, One Mind chose a group of companies tackling mental health in four different ways:  

Meeting the needs of underserved groups

The surge in demand for mental health providers grew exponentially during the pandemic. Many people were left without options for therapeutic care because providers often don’t take health insurance or have a three-month waiting list. One Mind is supporting two companies that are creating ways to increase access to treatment, including to underserved communities like teens and the Latino population.

Luis Emilio Suarez, a former management consultant from Mexico City, leads a company called Sanarai that offers a counseling platform forSpanish speakers. In the midst of a shortage of mental health providers, Suarez discovered through his own experience of trying to find good care that only 5% of mental health professionals offer services in Spanish, even though 13% of the U.S. population speaks Spanish at home. Sanarai addresses this gap by connecting Latinos in the U.S. with online therapists across Latin America at affordable rates.

“I believe services in a person’s native language are going to be beneficial because the cultural relevancy provides a baseline of understanding,” said Suarez.

Zama Health is filling the care gap by focusing on clinical intervention for athletes and the fitness community. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has now passed new requirements mandating that mental health resources be provided to college student-athletes starting in 2024. Zama provides access to in-network therapists who have been trained on the needs of the athletic community to optimize both mental and physical health and works with coaches and trainers to help them do their job more effectively.  

“We view ourselves as an extension to sports medicine departments,” said Brendan Sullivan, Zama’s CEO. “Rather than hiring full time staff, we can help support existing staff with our platform, which is a lot more cost-effective since we charge a subscription fee.”

Training a new generation of peer support workers

Two of the companies are creating peer support networks for children and teens by training people with “lived experience” – people who have suffered from mental health conditions and navigated health care systems. Because of their shared experience, peer support workers are often more able to form connections and provide support to others in need than clinical professionals. Research has shown that the support of trained peers can be highly effective in helping people recover from mental health challenges and addiction.

Somethings, a company founded by Patrick Gilligan, supports the mental health of 13-to-18-year-olds by matching them with trained 20-something peer mentors with whom they can text and have video calls through a mobile app. The company is designed to conduct background checks and interviews and train the mentors to become certified peer support specialists, and then to pair them with teens who pay $200 a month for their services.

“We’ve heard from many teens that they struggle to relate to their providers based on shared experiences because they are growing up in such a different world,” said Gabe Wieder, Somethings’ head of mentorship. “We found that teens prefer flexible engagement to one-hour sessions.”

The accelerator also supports another peer mentor company called Flourish Labs. In recent years, Kim Newell Green, MD, began noticing in her pediatric practice that her young patients were reporting intense levels of stress and anxiety. So she made a radical move, giving up her practice and founding Flourish Labs, which trains peer mentors 18 to 35 years old. Flourish Labs is also working on a study with UC Berkeley, using a suite of AI tools to collect data that measures and tracks whether a patient is improving or worsening based on the voice or the words they use in a session.

“The idea is that AI will be able to pull out and flag issues for us to know that a patient may need to escalate care, and it will take the boring but important tasks off our peer supporters and supervisors,” said Green. “We don’t use AI to directly interact with the client because we believe the strength of peer support lies in the human connection that’s grounded in shared experience.”

Precision psychiatry: Working to find more targeted treatments

Brandon Staglin’s all-too-common experience of spending six months experimenting with medications until he found the right one is one reason the accelerator’s inaugural class includes several companies focused on creating tools that provide more accurate diagnosis and more targeted treatments.

“One of our goals is to help people get the right treatment that helps them from the very beginning,” Staglin said. “That’s why I’m so excited that we now focus on precision psychiatry – which is getting the right medicine to match the brain’s actual biology.”

This includes approaches such as AI computational neuroscience, a new interdisciplinary field that combines artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience to study and model brain functions and develop AI systems based on how the brain processes information through sensory perception, learning, memory, and decision-making. In addition, improved resolution of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) means that researchers are now able to see smaller brain structures and detect more detailed activity patterns to aid in development of more targeted therapies.

“Psychiatry has suffered from a complete lack of biological information,” said Emily Stern, MD, a neuroscience researcher and expert in psychiatric neuroimaging who has worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She launched her company, Ceretype Neuromedicine, to apply fMRI scans and advanced analytics to better assess the workings of severe mental diseases. “Just like if you have asthma or a problem with your kidneys, mental health diseases are also biological diseases of the brain. Technology is now at a point where we can start to think about translating data into tools that can have meaning for the clinic.”

Emerging technologies for severe and treatment-resistant conditions

One of the toughest problems to solve in the realm of mental health treatment is finding ways to help people with serious mental illness who aren’t helped by standard treatments. Many researchers are using emerging technologies to find more targeted and individualized methods rather than one-size-fits-all approaches. A review published in Molecular Psychiatry noted that 20% to 60% of psychiatric patients are “treatment resistant” – that is, they have been correctly diagnosed and received adequate treatment, but they haven’t recovered. These failures of treatment create great suffering for patients and, according to the same review, are enormously costly; 80% of the total yearly health costs associated with schizophrenia in the United States, for example, are attributed to treatment-resistant cases. Several of the One Mind companies are working on experimental technologies that could help these more severe cases. 

Lindsay Dow, CEO of Tetricus Labs, was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 14, and spent ten years chasing the wrong medications. Now she and her company are working with Philip Corlett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale, to develop methods to measure how the brain processes information and makes decisions. They are developing online games and tasks that measure brain function and then running these measurements through a machine learning model to build a patient profile that predicts diagnosis and treatment responses.

“The idea is to achieve more fine-grained resolution into how a person’s brain specifically processes information and learns,” Dow told the group. She hopes to be able to use this more granular detail to offer doctors a way forward to a key goal: “faster diagnosis and treatments.“

Jacob Robinson, a neuroscience researcher at Rice University and CEO of Motif Neurotech, has spent the last decade creating technology to stimulate and record brain activity. Now he’s on leave from academia to devote more time to Motif. The early-stage startup is based on discoveries made in his lab which showed that magnetoelectric materials could deliver more power to miniature implants than is possible with existing technology. The company hopes to create minimally invasive “pacemakers” to implant in people’s brains that monitor and treat depression.

Robinson says that stimulating targeted sections of the brain can help people “to lift themselves from that malaise to do the things they need to do to get well,” he said. 

Another company, Flowly, sells a virtual reality headset that immerses users in relaxing imagery and uses biofeedback techniques to help chronic pain and anxiety patients manage their symptoms. The founders worked with Aman Mahajan, MD, PhD, MBA, chair of perioperative medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and senior vice president of health innovation at UPMC Enterprises, to complete an NIH-funded trial that tested the headset as a way to reduce opioid consumption for chronic back pain patients. Patients in the trial entered a virtual world using the headset and a sensor to collect biometric data such as heart rate and heart rate variability.

“The goal of biofeedback is to teach users to regulate their nervous system and to shift from a fight-or-flight mode to relax-and-restore mode,” said Flowly CEO Celine Tien. She said the trial showed a statistically significant reduction in opioid usage among patients, though the study has not yet been published. The app pulls in data through a sensor and creates visualizations that help patients reduce feelings of anxiety, pain, stress and burnout, said Tien, who took an unusual route to a therapeutics company.

“I was working at Dreamworks doing interactive content and realized there could be a platform that combines virtual reality and biofeedback for pain and anxiety disorders,” she said.

After spending 10 weeks working with the embryonic companies and helping them plot and refine their scientific and commercial strategies, One Mind Chief Strategy & Science Officer Pushkar Joshi is looking forward to seeing how his first group of babies develops and grows.

“We don’t know what’s going to play out here,” he said.  “We hope they will push the frontiers of innovation.”

Complete list of companies in the first One Mind Accelerator

Photo: Noelle Serper
  • Ceretype  – a brain “biomarker engine,” a novel fMRI platform using image acquisition and analytics to develop psychiatric and neurological therapies.
  • Flock Health – a digital health company working to detect and reduce acute mental health crises for patients suffering from Serious Mental Illness (SRI).
  • Flourish Labs – a company empowering college students to support each other through mobilizing and scaling mental health peer support with tech.
  • Flowly – a clinically validated platform for managing stress and building resilience using a mobile app, VR headset and biometric data.
  • Heading Health – a mental healthcare provider offering personalized and holistic treatment and medications, guided by cutting-edge research and technology.
  • Somethings – a platform connecting teenagers with certified Peer Mentors trained to provide mental health support through a digital care.
  • Motif Neurotech – a company creating minimally invasive bioelectronic implants that monitor and treat severe mental health conditions.
  • Options MD – a telehealth company enabling patients to access mental health care to address severe and treatment-resistant mental illnesses.
  • Sanarai – a mental health platform for Spanish-speakers, addressing the gap in mental health offering for the Latinx community.
  • Tetricus Labs – a precision psychiatry company using AI computational neuroscience to deliver accurate diagnoses and treatment recommendations.
  • Zama Health – a behavioral health platform providing clinical intervention for athletes and the broader fitness community.

Type of work:

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is an award-winning science writer and author of Reconceptions: Modern Relationships, Reproductive Science and the Unfolding Future of Family (BenBella Books, 2023). She is also founder...