Peer support groups can help people navigate major life challenges and get needed support to manage grief, address loneliness or even guide them through a career change.
As the U.S. faces a mental health crisis compounded by a massive shortage of available behavioral health resources, virtual peer support groups can help to fill that gap and offer much-needed mental health support.
But it can be difficult for individuals to find online peer support groups that meet their specific needs and are moderated by experienced facilitators.
Startup Forum launched out of stealth to offer a two-sided virtual peer support group marketplace that connects facilitators with people searching for specific groups.
Forum has a national network of experienced facilitators and the company's platform equips facilitators with the tools they need to create, grow and manage their peer support groups. Forum helps to tackle some of the administrative burdens of managing these groups such as handling payments, marketing, social promotion and providing a virtual site to host the groups.
While there are a few places that have a collection of support groups, there are no true platforms where individuals can browse a range of specific topics.
The New York City-based company delivers highly specific, live, video-based and facilitated group meetings. The marketplace has a rapidly expanding list of groups that cover topics like grief, loneliness, chronic conditions, substance use recovery, caregiving, relationships and careers.
"Prior to COVID, there was a widely held belief that peer support groups are only impactful if held in person. Post-pandemic, it’s become clear that virtual groups, if structured the right way, can be highly effective," Rajiv Kumar, M.D., co-founder and CEO of Forum, told Fierce Healthcare.
"Despite the proliferation of online support groups, the market is highly fragmented and high quality, highly specific groups are hard for people to find. Forum is fixing that by building a marketplace that makes it easy for people to find the right group for their needs. A marketplace is also the key to unlocking a massive new supply of people who can help others navigate a large variety of life challenges. This is especially important at a time when our behavioral health ecosystem is overburdened and there is a massive shortage of mental health clinicians."
Kumar sold his peer-group-driven weight management startup ShapeUp to Virgin Group in 2016. He teamed up with another digital health veteran, Lee Pichette, to launch Forum.
Pichette previously served as senior vice president of strategy at talent optimization leader Predictive Index where he recruited and led a national network of thousands of independent consultants. He also was a product leader at ShapeUp.
"Last summer, Rajiv and I were catching up in New York City to share business ideas and quickly realized that we were both planning to start almost identical companies but from two very different starting points," Pichette, who serves as president, told Fierce Healthcare. "Rajiv was iterating on the model he successfully pioneered at his first startup, ShapeUp, where they created over a million peer support groups around the world to help people lead healthier lives. As we emerged from the COVID pandemic, he was eager to apply group-based models to tackle the world’s other two pandemics: loneliness and the mental health crisis."
At the same time, Pichette was envisioning career-focused peer groups at scale.
"We quickly realized that a single, universal marketplace for peer support groups could help people tackle all of life’s big challenges—from mental and physical health to relationships, parenting, career, and more. Indeed, the diversity of the human experience demands a quantity and specificity of groups that only a marketplace can provide," Kumar said.
The startup secured $5.3 million in seed funding to expand into more areas of peer support. The seed round was led by NextView Ventures and included participation from MBX Capital, Cue Ball Capital, Sahil Bloom of SRB Ventures, Romeen Sheth, Shaan Puri and City Light Capital.
Forum groups are small cohorts of individuals who meet regularly on live video to participate in facilitated discussions.
"Our vision is to create a world where peer support is accessible and affordable for everyone. Forum provides a unique digital space for people to connect, heal and thrive together—without having to leave the comfort of their home," Kumar said.
As Forum expands its business, Kumar said he envisions groups on substance use recovery, chronic conditions, wellness, caregiving and more health and wellness topics.
Facilitators interested in becoming a Forum partner go through a vetting process, where they are evaluated on their education, skills and experience. All facilitators complete a formal onboarding and training program.
"Our facilitators are individuals with group facilitation experience and a passion for leading groups. We carefully vet every facilitator, evaluating their past experience, testing their group facilitation skills and then providing extensive training during the onboarding process. Once their group is launched, we provide longitudinal feedback and professional development opportunities," Kumar said.
Annie Adams, a Forum group facilitator who specializes in supporting mothers who have lost a child, said the marketplace platform offered an opportunity to reach people beyond meeting with them one-on-one. "Forum gave me support to get my group off the ground, in addition to the freedom to design the experience I want for my members," Adams said.
Kumar said Forum will initially measure the success of its business model by evaluating facilitator and member satisfaction and retention.
"As we launch more specific health-related topics, we plan to track outcome measures that are specific to the condition being addressed," he said.
Forum is focused on a direct-to-consumer approach in the short term. However, Kumar sees opportunities to leverage the executive team's experience working with employers, health plans and health systems while at ShapeUp and Virgin Pulse to eventually launch an enterprise business.
"All of these organizations use various forms of peer support groups today—and we certainly plan to develop offerings for these organizations to help them take those groups to the next level," he said.