Ramakant Vempati is the co-founder of Wysa, an AI-enabled platform for behavioral health. Previously, Ramakant worked at Goldman Sachs in London as a COO supporting the EMEA capital markets business; and at Barclays Capital in their global strategy team. He has also served as a senior advisor to a UN and World Bank backed entity building a multi-million dollar impact investment portfolio, where his work has twice won the Thomson-Reuters Ethical Finance award. Ramakant holds an MBA from the London Business School, where he was a merit scholar. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur in India.
The coronavirus pandemic has catalyzed digital transformations and technological advances across industry sectors. In this interview, Ramakant discusses technologically-driven responses to the shortage of mental health professionals, he talks about how AI helps with the “missing middle” and he provides dynamic, insightful perspectives about leadership in the digital age.
Tell us about how you came to develop Wysa:
Our first platform was designed to help people struggling with loneliness. But within a year, it was becoming clear that we weren’t able to find a “market fit” for this platform. This process pushed my co-founder, Jo Aggarwal, into depression, a stage of our life that played a crucial role in the development of our second platform— Wysa.
Wysa was launched on World Mental Health Day in 2016 – as an anonymous mental health support platform which primarily uses AI to help users cope with stress and other mental health issues by using mindfulness and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques. In May of 2017, something happened that changed our lives. We received a message from a 13-year-old girl saying, “I am depressed. I tried to commit suicide. You’re helping me hold on to life.” There was no looking back from that point. The team stopped every other experiment it was doing and just focused on Wysa.
How did you develop the AI models for Wysa?
Wysa version 1.0 had basic clinical safety features to help detect somebody’s suicidal behaviors and to escalate people 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 and turned them into AI-based models: detecting objections, detecting emotion and detecting sentiment.
Wysa demonstrates how AI is used to promote better mental health. Why the AI route? How does AI help achieve stronger mental health outcomes?
Right now, there is a big gap between the demand and supply of mental health professionals, which worsened during the pandemic. Most telehealth solutions focus on serving those with high levels of need, those who qualify for clinical support through a diagnosis. There is still a significant gap that we call the ‘missing middle’ of mental health, where the majority of people are. They want to work on things themselves, not necessarily have to medicalize their situation, but there is nothing available that can help. Further, from a provider point of view, this ‘missing middle’ is too big to serve with existing models of care, given the existing shortage of trained professionals.
This is where Wysa’s technology comes in. It offers a means of intervening early, providing an empathetic ear and a safe space to have conversations and to learn resilience techniques, with the ability of escalating to more structured help if required. As an AI conversational agent, Wysa feels like a person – but can standardize and scale like a product while still remaining clinically safe. This is what makes such a mechanism ideal to solve for mental health at scale.
What certifications and licenses have you received in order to stay compliant with data security and privacy?
At Wysa, We take user safety, privacy and security very seriously and take all precautions to safeguard data. Wysa has taken the following steps to ensure data security, privacy and clinical safety.
- Wysa’s Information Security Management System (ISMS) and Privacy Information Management System (PIMS) are audited and certified by BSI Group for ISO/IEC 27001:2013 and ISO/IEC 27701: 2019 global security and privacy standards.
- Our privacy and security controls have also been audited by 3rd party auditors for compliance to GDPR and HIPAA.
- We have also appointed a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and a Data Protection and Compliance Officer to ensure the governance, controls and safeguards across the organization information systems.
- We are registered with the Information Commissioner’s office (ICO UK).
- From Clinical Safety perspective, we are compliant to NHS Digital’s DCB 0129 Clinical Risk Management Standards and have an appointed Clinical Safety Officer to ensure clinical safety of our product and services.
What insights do you have for other business leaders?
From Wysa’s own journey, I’d say there have been three big learnings. One, working in healthcare takes time and patience. For most entrepreneurs, it is a personal mission that keeps them going – and provides the strength to dig deep to solve a problem. Second, the user needs to be at the center of it all. This is easy to forget in an environment where you’re trying to serve multiple masters: the doctor, the regulator, or the one leading finance or procurement. It is the patient, or the user, whose needs are paramount; everything else follows. Third, as they say, overnight successes take ten years in the making. In healthcare, successful solutions take persistent iteration, lots of people who believe and help along the way, and not an insignificant amount of luck. If a business is able to survive long enough and add enough value to its users along the way, success will follow.
How do you continue to grow and develop as an executive leader?
Personally, the biggest tool for learning has been the imperative to stay humble, and listen. It probably helps that the success of Wysa has been in the mental health space, and as a result, we have all had to learn and come to understand this space. We’ve approached this as users ourselves, who are intimately familiar with the problem we are trying to solve. Everything else has to be learned, or earned, along the way – irrespective of past lives or successes. This provides a grounding in reality – and the fact that we have pivoted the business three times helps in staying that way.
What are the best ways for leaders to support other leaders?
They say it is always lonely at the top. Being a founder is an experience that very few others, apart from founders, can truly understand. I’ve been so fortunate in having mentors throughout my career, in my corporate stints, as well as in my adventures as an entrepreneur. I feel that giving back to others, in terms of emotional support, a friendly and understanding voice, and advice or guidance where it is required is the best way to contribute.
You must know the cliché software will save the world. What’s your take on it?
I think the original phrase was that software will eat the world 🙂 Which, in any case, is way too dramatic.
Our own work with Wysa has indeed shown us how software can help in so many ways. By our estimate, Wysa as an AI-led digital mental health platform has been able to provide high quality mental health support to three million people. We measure impact through something we call ‘cognitive breakthroughs’, which typically take 1-2 hours of therapy. Wysa did two million of these last year. So in a sense, this was the equivalent of six million hours of therapy, or the output of more than 15,000 mental health professionals every year. We have a 35 people product and technology team. That’s the kind of scale and reach possible with software today – so yes, this can definitely (help) save the world.
Of course, software can’t exist without the humans to think about, design, or use it … but that’s another story!
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