Meta makes its first investment in Asia with a $3 million funding round from a mental health startup

As an Asian pioneer in mental wellness, Ami, based in Singapore and Jakarta, seeks to change the narratives of corporate wellness in the region, and investors are seeing the benefits.

Owidespread emotional exhaustion, brought on by overwork and exacerbated by the pandemic, has forced employers to accept that mental health cannot be ignored in the workplace.

Ami, a growing mental health platform, is getting businesses on board. Founded in January, the Singapore and Jakarta-based startup aims to make mental health care more accessible to employees in Asia, through counseling sessions that take place on messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

Co-founder and CEO Justin Kim, a Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia Alum as of 2020, developed the idea for Ami alongside CTO Beknazar Abdikamalov. The pair are no strangers to fast-paced corporate cultures – Kim was previously a product owner at Korean billionaire Lee Seung-gun Viva Republica, which operates the financial super app Toss, while Abdikamalov worked as a software engineer at Amazon.

Now, four months after his beta launchAmi closed a $3 million seed round from investors including the New Product Experimentation (NPE) team of Meta, an experimental applications division under the tech giant, marking the first investment Facebook owner’s startup in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are impressed with the passion and talent of the Ami team and look forward to supporting them as they leverage WhatsApp to provide Asians with another way to take charge of their mental health,” says Sunita Parasuraman , which leads NPE’s investments in Meta, which owns the ubiquitous messaging app, in a statement provided to Forbes.

The deal marks Meta’s latest move to expand its investments beyond the United States in a announcement in December 2021, the day after Facebook rebranded to Meta, that NPE would seek ideas that could “meet the needs of a rapidly changing global society”. In April, NPE announced that it would begin hiring a new office in Seoul, in addition to its existing base in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

Joining Meta in the funding round are existing investors Goodwater Capital (which backed Kakao, Coupang and Viva Republica), Strong Ventures, January Capital and Collaborative Fund.

“What we’re hoping to do is make the narrative around mental health a lot more proactive for people who want to adopt a healthier lifestyle.”

Justin Kim, co-founder and CEO of Ami

As the world tries to recover from the deep economic and social damage wrought by the pandemic, the clichés about establishing a “new normal” have proven true when it comes to employee wellbeing. A walk report from the World Health Organization have found that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide.

A look at Asia, a 2021 report from the National Institute of Health in Singapore estimated the societal cost of six common mental health disorders to be $1.2 billion per year, including employee absenteeism and lost productivity.

Besides Singapore and Jakarta– two of Asia’s fastest growing start-up hubs – Ami intends to expand across Asia by providing companies with the opportunity to attract and retain top talent through a concrete platform of mental health support, at a time when companies are looking for benefits to offer employees.

“What we’re hoping to do is make the storytelling around mental health a lot more proactive for people who want to adopt a healthier lifestyle,” Kim says in a video interview from her home in Singapore. “So they can somehow cope with the stress that inevitably occurs in everyday life, but could also prevent problems from becoming bigger than they need to be.”

Ami offers its platform to startups, described as a target due to their relatively more stressful environments, as well as any business that prioritizes retaining top talent in the region. “Our coaches are going to be able to understand you, at least from my personal experience, much more than some traditional clinical solutions could offer,” says Kim, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in 2019. .

When asked how Ami selects its practitioners, Kim said his startup will emphasize “the power of relatability” in choosing native coaches from each location, and include practitioners with a wide range of backgrounds. experiences, ranging from licensed clinical psychologists to career coaches.

“Although we have these licenses and certifications, that’s not the only thing that constitutes a good experience,” Kim says. “You need to have that extra layer to find the factors that users are looking for…that’s where we come in.”

During the registration process, users fill out a form detailing what stresses them most often and, based on their answers, they will be matched with a practitioner who specializes in those issues. Ami will leverage technology to analyze those responses and provide an “extremely smooth” experience for its users, Kim says, although the topics of conversation aren’t limited to any specialty.

Since cities in Asia have different requirements for what constitutes a mental health counselor, Ami sidesteps potential discrepancies by specifying that their practitioners are “coaches” on their platform. These coaches would largely be recommended through referrals, which Kim says could help ensure a certain level of quality.

Yet startups like Ami still face a challenge in the form of mental health stigma, prevalent across Asia. Seeking mental health support remains a problem in a region where the very concept of mental illness is constantly undermined. A 2020 academic exam of mental illness stigma in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Thailand revealed that these illnesses were viewed as a personal weakness and therefore less socially acceptable, among other issues.

Kim says an antidote to stigma is to reframe mental health as “mental wellness,” which everyone, not just the mentally ill, can benefit from. With Ami’s support, employees can discuss whatever comes to mind, which can reduce perceived difficulty in seeking help. Based on their testing, Ami found that on average at least 40% of employees were using the platform after two months, while Kim says existing mental health solutions rank in the “numbers lower” in terms of employee adoption.

Ultimately, Ami seeks to deliver tangible improvements in employee wellbeing where other company-provided wellbeing solutions are underutilized or miss the mark. Kim hopes that as more employees share Ami, reluctant users will be encouraged to try the services, which will ensure high engagement and retention.

“The last thing we want to be is a product or benefit that a company buys for a press release and then sits on the shelf,” smiles Kim. “What we consider very, very important is the percentage of employees who actually use our solutions and continue to use our solutions over time.”

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