Exclusive | The story of Wysa: How an Indian startup built a mental health chatbot for the world

The app has been able to chalk up 3 million users from 65 countries and revenue is “entirely global.” (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Jo Aggarwal considers herself a problem solver. After spending six years in the Middle East trying to help young people thrive post conflict along with her husband Ramakant, she realised, it did not take money or big backing to make a difference. In 2015, she launched ‘StayClose’, a startup which sought to help people struggling with loneliness. But within a year, it was becoming clear, her first product wasn’t a “market fit” and it would be difficult to woo investors. The process pushed her into depression, a stage of her life that would play a crucial role in the development of her second product — Wysa.

“I think at some point, I realised that if I am going to fail, I am willing to do it trying to solve for mental health,” Aggarwal tells Financial Express Online.

Humble beginnings

Wysa was launched on the World Mental Health Day in 2016. The name comes from ELIZA, which was the first chatbot ever created. The movie “Her” was based on it. Aggarwal figured if she could build something like that, but only wiser, then maybe she would be able to create a “safe space” that people could actually talk more openly inside and then be guided through some of the existing — but those that are constantly evolving — techniques and learnings to help themselves, sometimes in one tenth the time (of conventional therapy).

Early on, Aggarwal and team was able to diagnose people with depression with up to 90 percent accuracy. The first trials were done in India. But there was a problem. Only one out of ten got therapy. Aggarwal wasn’t anything close to solving mental health issues and the last thing she wanted was to be the reason why antidepressant prescriptions were going up.

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But in May 2017, something happened that changed their life. A 13-year-old girl wrote to her saying, “I am depressed. I tried to commit suicide. You’re helping me hold on to life.”

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There was no looking back from that point.

The team shut down every other experiment it was doing and just focused on Wysa saying, “Okay, we have some inkling that this can actually solve the problem” because “if somebody is writing back to us that in the worst time of their life, we are becoming their aid, we just want to get better and better.”

The next three years, the team just focused on making the product better: getting published, getting clinical safety, getting certifications on security, privacy, clinical efficacy, and getting adopted by UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Global impact

Wysa is an AI safe space where instead of talking to another human being, you are anonymously guided by an “AI penguin” which listens to you empathetically and allows you to depersonalise your stress. Aggarwal says people open to AI much sooner than they open to another human being.

“Research shows that people will open to AI three times faster than they do with a therapist. Our own data shows that people can complete a cognitive behavioural therapy exercise (that takes them three therapy sessions) in just about 10 minutes when they are talking to an AI bot.”

There’s efficiency, scale and comfort that people have saying “I help myself. Not that I was so badly off that I needed somebody else to take care of me and I lost agency in that process.”

Wysa version 1.0 had basic clinical safety to detect for somebody being suicidal and escalate them to a help line. It had a therapist overseeing whatever happened so that in case there was a case and hazard, the team would have some log of that. All this was done in a “completely anonymous” manner. The team worked with existing techniques that worksheets existed for and turned them into an AI-based thing started with three models: detecting objections, detecting emotion and detecting sentiment.

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Today, Wysa has over 100 different AI models and can recognise over 70 different emotion subtypes while in the beginning, this was five. Being bored, lonely, or alone aren’t the same thing, Aggarwal says, and each emotion has its own different path. You could be angry at yourself, or angry at others. You could be worried about the future, or thinking about the past, so on and so forth.

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The team has grown from 10 to 30: it’s a combination of poets, therapists and product people, she says. The product was designed in India and as much as 90 percent research, development, and heavy lifting is done here. Their clinical lead is based out of the UK.

For a product that was conceived in India, it’s exciting that Wysa has had a sort of breakout in international markets. The app has been able to chalk up 3 million users from 65 countries and revenue is “entirely global.”

“Many people talk to Wysa in a language that is not English and because we don’t yet understand those languages, we ask them: can you volunteer to translate it into your language? We ran this question for a year. We got 16,000 people volunteering for 30 different languages. So, that’s the kind of global impact,” Aggarwal says.

To infinity and beyond

What’s truly remarkable is that Wysa has been able to gain success and growth “purely by word of mouth” especially during the initial days.

When Apple started its Entrepreneur Camp in 2019, specifically for women founders and developers, Aggarwal found herself in a very unique position and knew, she had to apply. A call from Cupertino would help shape Wysa’s next chapter — monetisation.

As a part of the Entrepreneur Camp and App Accelerator in Bangalore, she received direct feedback on product design and brand positioning, which has led to a 400 percent increase in revenue. Considering the team had never spent a dollar on marketing, the jump was significant.

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But even more importantly, hands-on coaching by “folks who designed the first iPhone” helped shape the future of Wysa. During App Accelerator, Aggarwal was assigned a relationship manager, and together they started working on accessibility, opening the platform for people with vision problems.

And as a part of continued support, the team is now working with Apple’s SiriKit, to “transform” Wysa into a voice-based platform, through “early access to technologies.” Aggarwal is also looking at getting into biomarkers and having greater integration with healthcare, and business, she says, is “thriving.”

“We sort of really came into our own when Covid started. Post Covid, the business-to-business side, which is where we always thought we would make our money (we never intended to significantly monetise consumers directly, that was more social impact), has just taken off.”

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Clients range from the National Health Service in the UK to large corporates like Accenture who are using Wysa globally for all their employees. Aggarwal and team have 10 million lives covered with these corporate contracts.

That said, Aggarwal and team are just getting started and there is still a long way to go. But surely, she has found her calling in life, and built a product – with sheer determination if you will – that, well what do you know, just fits.

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