HealthRhythms lands UCHealth partnership, $11M investment to scale up AI-based mental health app

Millions of Americans are affected by a mental illness each year, but providers are often in the dark about what is happening to their patients day to day and in between doctor visits.

Turns out, tracking mental health could be as easy as counting steps.

A startup led by mental health and technology experts offers an app that can track mental health and predict depressive relapses up to a week in advance. And all the patient has to do is carry around their smartphone.

HealthRhythms, a five-year-old startup, is partnering with UCHealth in Colorado to scale its artificial-intelligence-based digital platform to millions of patients. 

The HealthRhythms app uses smartphone sensors to passively measure behavior relevant to mental health and leverage AI to assess an individual’s mental health status. Biomarkers derived by machine learning translate a user's daily activity—including sleep, physical exercise and movement and social engagement—into insights into that patient's health and functioning.

The company's platform then uses that information to deliver personalized, timely interventions to improve mental health. It's a digital experience that's easily woven into daily life, according to company executives.

Along with its partnership with UCHealth, HealthRhythms announced the close of a highly oversubscribed $11 million seed round led by GSR Ventures and investor Brook Byers, founding member of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

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HealthRhythms is redesigning mental health for the 21st century, according to Paul Gilbert, the company's CEO.

"We've combined AI, behavioral sensing and the supercomputing platform of the cloud and the smartphone to address the fundamental failures of the system and pivot it from where it has been, which is reactive, one-size-fits-all and too costly, to where it needs to be, which is predictive, proactive and highly personalized," Gilbert told Fierce Healthcare.

The technology helps solve the universal problems of patient monitoring and early detection, as patient self-reports are subjective and sporadic and make it very difficult to know what is happening between visits. 

For patients, HealthRhythms' technology means no wearables and no active reporting. And the technology more quickly alerts providers to a patient's mental health challenges, providing a patient safety net, according to company executives.

The partnership with UCHealth, an academic health system with 12 hospitals and hundreds of clinic locations, will enable HealthRhythms to scale its app to more than 2 million patients. UCHealth serves patients across Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

“Widespread utilization of HealthRhythms’ technology will transform how we care for patients with mental health concerns," said Neill Epperson, M.D. chair of the University of Colorado Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in a statement.

“The current health landscape is characterized by poor access to timely, high-quality mental health care. HealthRhythms’ groundbreaking predictive analytics are unique and steeped in rigorous research,” she said.

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The real "breakthrough" with HealthRhythms' app is that it allows all types of providers across all specialties to integrate behavioral health into their care "without needing to be mental health experts," said Richard Zane, M.D., chief innovation officer at UCHealth and chair of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Mental health has historically been treated separately from physical health issues, Zane said. HealthRhythms' technology supports UCHealth's approach to addressing mental health as a part of a patient's overall health.

"The reality is that behavioral health needs are across the spectrum and there simply is a historic lack of behavioral health infrastructure in medicine and that existed pre-pandemic. The [COVID-19] pandemic has exacerbated [mental health challenges], but brought a light to it and normalized it as well," Zane said.

Patients with complex medical conditions like heart disease commonly also have mental health challenges. "It’s impossible to appropriately treat these complex patients without addressing all the issues contributing to their health," Zane said.

HealthRhythms’ platform also adapts and offers personalized suggestions to users based on the insights it derives from the collected data, which sets it apart from other mental health apps, according to the company. 

“Our vision is to have HealthRhythms on the phone of every patient who consents to it across the entire UCHealth system,” said Kimberly Muller, executive director of CU Innovations, a strategic healthcare fund affiliated with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Using technology to measure mental health

GSR Ventures, an early-stage venture fund, has met with several hundred mental health companies, but HealthRhythms is one of the very few it has invested in, said Sunny Kumar, M.D., a partner at GSR Ventures.

“HealthRhythms is different because it addresses the core challenge in mental health care: improving both access and quality - the Holy Grail dimensions of mental healthcare - while enabling providers to deploy resources across a much broader population," said Kumar, who will join the HealthRhythms board of directors.

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HealthRhythms was founded in 2015 by a powerhouse group of mental health pioneers and technology experts.

The collaboration came together when Mark Matthews, Ph.D., was granted a three-year Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission to develop technology for individuals with bipolar disorder at Cornell University. Matthews, whose Ph.D. research was commercialized into the spinout startup SilverCloud Health, got in touch with Ellen Frank, Ph.D., an expert in mood disorders and their treatment, to explore the role of technology in improving the lives of people with bipolar disorder.

Matthews and Frank worked together with Tanzeem Choudhury, Ph.D., a professor of computing and information sciences at Cornell Tech, to develop a mobile app called MoodRhythm for individuals with bipolar disorder that won the 2013 Heritage mHealth Challenge and a $100,000 prize. The three used that money to bootstrap the founding of HealthRhythms.

"Where we began was more than seven years ago was this thinking that the smartphone could tell you just about everything you would want to know about the behavior of an individual who has or might be going into an episode of mental illness," Frank, co-founder and now the company's chief scientific officer, told Fierce Healthcare.

Data from smartphones can reveal whether someone's daily routine has become unbalanced. Digital nudges or "micro-interventions" can help move that individual in the direction of more stable routines and better mental health, she said.

It's not the only startup leveraging AI and machine learning to address mental and behavioral health issues.

This past year has seen the emergence of several digital mental health "unicorns," or startups with valuations of at least $1 billion, including Cerebral, Modern Health, Lyra Health and Ginger, now merged with Headspace. 

Global funding to mental health tech startups reached $5.5 billion in 2021, jumping 139% from $2.3 billion in 2020, according to CB Insights.

But the flood of digital mental health apps and virtual providers doesn't improve access to care, according to Gilbert.

"Even before the pandemic, the system was vastly underfunded, fragmented and difficult to access. All COVID has done is unleash this huge experiment in the virtualization of care, but it didn't reinvent it. Instead of me getting in the car to go see my therapist, now I see my therapist from a couch, so it doesn't really address anything with access," he said.

Measuring the effectiveness of mental health treatments also is a challenge, he said.

HealthRhythms' technology is based on 40 years of laboratory and clinical research into mental disorders, he noted.

"It's time to imagine what the next generation of mental health care can look like. There are 3 billion supercomputers distributed in people's pockets around the world. Imagine that by using AI and behavioral sensing, we could do things in mental health we could never imagine doing before—measuring mental health in a continuous, objective way and predicting deterioration up to a week in advance with almost 90% accuracy," he said.