Mental health startup Real lands $10M backed by Lightspeed and soccer star Megan Rapinoe

The past year has put a spotlight on a growing mental health crisis as Americans face increased stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

Startup Real launched last year to make healthcare services more accessible by providing on-demand group therapy.

The company, based in New York City, scored $10 million in series A funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. The startup has attracted big-name backers including U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Real was born out of two strong needs, the first being the lack of preventive mental health care available today and a desire to change the antiquated mental health care system based on the current one-on-one therapy system, Real founder and CEO Ariela Safira told Fierce Healthcare.

"Working out is one of many ways we can prevent heart conditions and physical health crises in the future, yet there are no options for someone looking to proactively care for their mental health on a regular basis in order to prevent a crisis state from arising," Safira said.

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Currently, one-on-one therapy seems to be the only widely available mode of care.

"Though effective to some, one-on-one therapy is a deeply flawed model—it is financially inaccessible to the majority of Americans, it cannot scale at a rate that matches the demonstrated need for mental health care and the experience itself is unappealing to many people. It hasn’t changed in over a hundred years. We are living in a mental health crisis, and the current system isn’t solving it," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of last June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Rates of anxiety and depression also have increased.

Real officials say they are shaking up the space by providing group therapy available on-demand across a number of topics including anxiety, relationships, career advice, body image and other issues.

"In the same way you can stream a class or play an on-demand workout, Real is bringing mental health care to members with topic-based, on-demand Pathways," Safira said.

Real offers clinically backed care through an innovative membership model that includes a range of touch points and experiences. The company's model brings the monthly cost of mental health care down to $28 per month versus traditional one-on-one therapy that costs anywhere from $65 to $250 per session, according to the company.

"What also differentiates Real’s is that our model is measurable and action-oriented. Throughout their time with Real, members can track their mental health progress with the Real 10, a unique measurement scale used to understand the clinical progress of Real’s members while also giving them the opportunity to take proactive care of their well-being," Safira said.

The company plans to use the new capital to ramp up investments in technology and platform development for its digital membership to provide nationwide access to more services, especially those in communities with limited mental health resources, the company said. Real also plans to step up hiring for product development, engineering and the therapy team.

"We led Real's series A because the CEO and founder Ariela has a clear vision to democratize therapy. They have the clinical research to prove the effectiveness of group therapy and the team who are executing on it. We are thrilled to be their partner on this journey," said Nicole Quinn, general partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.

The digital mental health sector is a rapidly growing field attracting both new players and record investment from venture capital. Modern Health, Lyra Health and Ginger are now digital health unicorns in the virtual behavioral health space, with valuations of more than $1 billion.

The startup also plans to open up its first in-person mental health studio in New York City.

RELATED: Cigna: COVID-driven demand for virtual behavioral healthcare remains high

"Real originally planned to open an in-person studio in March 2020 because we found therapist offices to be daunting, dull and uninspiring. Founded on the idea that we not only wanted members to proactively care for their mind but also celebrate it, we wanted to create an in-person option that reflected that," Safira said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person care was not an option, the team pivoted in eight days to launch a new digital platform, called Real to the People, to provide complementary therapy services to those in need of mental health support at home.

Real has raised $16 million to date, including a $6 million seed financing round in July 2020, with investment from Forerunner Ventures, Female Founders Fund, BBG Ventures, SoGal Ventures, Gwyneth Paltrow, Andy Dunn (founder of Bonobos), Katherine Ryder of Maven Clinic, Amy Griffin of G9 Ventures, Reshape, Great Oaks Venture Capital and Metaprop. 

On-demand mental health care helps address the current shortage of clinicians, ensuring people who otherwise could not receive care now can, according to Safira. Real's digital services also allow people to personalize their mental health experience exactly as they would like.

"Offering on-demand care gives you agency over where and when you work on your mental health—for some, that’s during sunlit hours walking outside; for me, that’s after midnight, lying in my own bed. You can’t man-make that kind of mental state, and on-demand puts the control in members to form that for themselves," she said.

RELATED: Ginger banks another $100M to ramp up partnerships with health plans, government payers

Safira felt inspired to launch Real after encountering the inefficiencies of the mental health care system when a close friend attempted suicide.

"Shaken by my friend’s experience, I spent the next six years examining every aspect of the mental health care system," she said, including research, touring rehab and inpatient facilities and speaking with patients, doctors and thought leaders in the field.

She worked at Sidewalk Labs and Cityblock, then pursued a master's degree in clinical psychology at Columbia University in 2018.

"I promptly dropped out after feeling that even the training was outdated and inconsistent. From that point on, I made it my mission to develop a new therapy model based on patient-centered care," she said.