Entrepreneur of the Week: Dr. Alison Darcy, Woebot Labs, Inc.
Woebot is an AI-powered chatbot that aims to tackle mental health like never before through routine social engagement, including simple conversations and word games. It was designed by a team comprised of Stanford psychologists and AI experts.
We spoke with founder and CEO, Dr. Alison Darcy, about Woebot and the opportunities she sees in the 50+ market.
The Longevity Network: What does Woebot, the company, do? Can you tell us about your product and how it works?
Dr. Alison Darcy: Woebot is a Facebook-integrated chatbot built to address the growing mental health epidemic. Woebot delivers a guided self-help version of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the most rigorously studied therapeutic approach across diagnoses, especially mood disorders like anxiety and depression. He talks to you about how you are feeling, and teaches you about negative thought patterns and other ways we undermine our own happiness, so you learn how to best address your problems in the future.
Woebot efficacy is supported by a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Mental Health. In the study (led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine), we found that those who interacted with Woebot experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms of depression and anxiety after just 2 weeks. The results were surprising, particularly since traditional face-to-face therapy often takes much longer (roughly 5 weeks) to see these same kinds of results. Woebot provides personalized informational content that would only ordinarily come from rich interactions with a great therapist – all with the goal of making quality mental healthcare as accessible as possible, for everyone.
LN: What opportunity did you want to address with the development of your technology?
AD: I have been a clinical research psychologist and intervention scientist for about 15 years, with much of this time spent working with patients and mental illness. That said, I also have a technical background, having built my first digital mental health intervention in 2000. Back at that time, the internet and other emerging technologies were scaling quickly; I was convinced that they would democratize access to mental health care. Unfortunately but that’s been slow, and I’ve seen first hand the limitations of our mental health care system – and the lack of effective solutions in bridging those gaps.
There will never be enough mental health care professionals to serve the growing need for licensed therapists, this is well understood. Moreover, due to perceived stigmas and high costs, a large fraction of people suffering from depression and anxiety may never receive care. I wanted to create Woebot as an additional option for people and a way to open up access to help.
Available on Facebook Messenger (the largest social media network with over 2 billion users) and at a significantly more affordable cost than most traditional therapists (and especially so for those without health insurance), Woebot provides a therapeutic experience to those who may otherwise not receive it – whatever the reason.
LN: Who are your primary users? In what ways can your products benefit the 50+ population?
AD: Woebot was originally developed for younger adults (age 18-28), but we’re seeing people of all ages engaging with it in a meaningful way. For older adults especially, one key advantage of Woebot is that unlike apps, you don’t have to learn any new technology – it’s just a conversation, so people can start to engage straight away. With each new phase in our lives, we are faced with new experiences and can be vulnerable to related feelings of anxiety or depression. Because cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is so versatile, Woebot can help anyone struggling with mental health learn how to better cope with and interpret events that happen in their lives, regardless of age. When people ask us how suitable he is for them, we encourage them to give him a try – you’ll know if it’s a good fit pretty early on.
LN: How did you assemble your team?
AD: Having spent several years in the Psychiatry Department at the Stanford School of Medicine, as well as some time in the Stanford AI Lab, I was surrounded by inspiring people who were working to develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. During my time in the AI lab, I was exposed to how AI could be applied to conversational agents, like chatbots. After I left Stanford, I began working with some of these AI experts, as well as Woebot’s CTO Pamela Fox, who previously spent years developing code for curriculum programs with Coursera and Khan Academy.
I come from a background in clinical research psychology, having directly worked with patients suffering from mental illness, and designing treatments for them. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to draw from the extensive experience of my former colleagues and also tap into the Stanford network that produces some of the most brilliant graduates in both clinical sciences and engineering.
Having said that we are growing the team all the time and we are actively hiring right now.
LN: Do you have any other products in development?
AD: In a world where so many people have smartphones and are accustomed to 24/7 connectivity, the convenience of a Facebook-integrated chatbot is unparalleled. That said, we are in the process of developing a Woebot app for both iOS and Android, so users can choose where they want to use Woebot.
LN: Where do you see Woebot five years from now?
AD: I see Woebot improving on three main dimensions. I think his conversational skill will be much more sophisticated, and he will also be able to deliver a much more personalized experience for each user. Finally, and to some extent as a function of these two factors, I see him being much better at his job of being a personal mental health coach. All of these improvements are possible because we are uniquely positioned to gather the data we need to be constantly learning from people, but also because of my research background I’m excited to be in a position to further develop the therapeutic models themselves. It’s sort of interesting to think that the basic model of the therapeutic relationship has not evolved much from the basic structure of two humans in a room for one hour a week since it was first conceived in the 1890’s. We’re just beginning to understand that there are additional ways that people can go about feeling better and I believe we have a big opportunity to contribute knowledge here.
LN: How has Woebot the company differed from what you envisioned it would be (if at all)?
AD: Coming from an academic background, it’s been an interesting challenge for me to learn about the business side of creating a great mental health service. I must admit that I used to be skeptical of companies who created services like this as I saw it AS “just for profit.” But after more than 15 years of seeing great academic projects fizzle away and die due to lack of funding, my perspective changed almost completely. I realize that creating a business may be the most viable pathway to creating a sustainable service that actually reaches the most people. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to throw your ethics out the window, either.
About the Author
Dr. Alison Darcy is a clinical research psychologist and the CEO and founder of Woebot Labs, Inc., which recently launched the world’s first mental health chatbot supported by clinical research trials. Prior to Woebot Labs, Dr. Darcy was an adjunct faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and prior to that was academic faculty for almost ten years, researching and designing treatments for people living with eating disorders. She holds a Ph.D., MLitt and B.A. in Psychology from University College Dublin, and has spent her career building scalable technology solutions to address the pervasive mental health crisis.