As an Asian pioneer in mental wellness, Ami, based in Singapore and Jakarta, is looking to change narratives about corporate wellness in the region, and investors see the benefits.
WWidespread 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 rising mental health platform, is attracting businesses. 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 alumnus since 2020, developed the idea for Ami along with 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’s Viva Republica, which runs finance superapp Toss, while Abdikamalov worked as a software engineer at Amazon.
Now, four months after its beta launch, Ami has closed a $3 million seed round from investors, including Meta’s New Product Experimentation (NPE) team, an experimental apps division of the tech giant, marking the Facebook owner’s first early-stage startup investment in the Asia Pacific region.
“We are impressed by the passion and talent of the Ami team and look forward to supporting them as they build WhatsApp to give people in Asia another way to support their mental health,” says Sunita Parasuraman, who leads NPE investments in Meta. , owner of the ubiquitous messaging app, in a statement provided to Forbes.
The deal marks the latest move by Meta to expand investments beyond the US since an announcement in December 2021, the day after Facebook’s rebranding as Meta, that NPE would pursue ideas that could “meet needs of a rapidly changing global society. In April, NPE announced that it would begin hiring for 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 has backed Kakao, Coupang and Viva Republica), Strong Ventures, January Capital and the Collaborative Fund.
“What we hope to do is make the mental health narrative much more proactive for people who want to adopt a healthier lifestyle.”
As the world tries to recover from the profound economic and social damage caused by the pandemic, clichés about forging a “new normal” have proven true about employee well-being. A March report from the World Health Organization found that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide.
In Asia, a 2021 report from the Singapore National Institute of Health estimated the societal cost of six common mental health disorders at $1.2 billion per year, including employee absenteeism and lost productivity.
In addition to Singapore and Jakarta, two of Asia’s most vibrant start-up hubs, Ami plans to expand across Asia by offering companies the ability to attract and retain top talent with a concrete platform to support mental health, at a time when companies are looking for profit. to provide to employees.
“What we hope to do is make the mental health narrative much 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 deal with the stress that inevitably occurs on a day-to-day basis, but they can 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 company that prioritizes retaining the best talent in the region. “Our trainers will be able to empathize with you, at least in my personal experience, much more than certain traditional clinical solutions could,” says Kim, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in 2019.
When asked how Ami selects her practitioners, Kim noted that her startup would emphasize “the power of networking” by choosing trainers native to each location and including professionals with a wide range of backgrounds, ranging from licensed clinical psychologists to professional trainers.
“While we have those licenses and certifications, that’s not the only thing that makes for a good experience,” says Kim. “You need to have that extra layer to find what factors users are looking for… so 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 responses, they will be matched with a professional who specializes in those topics. Ami will leverage technology to parse these responses and offer an “extremely seamless” experience for her users, Kim says, though the topics of conversation won’t be limited to any one specialty.
Since cities in Asia have different requirements for what constitutes a mental health counselor, Ami addresses potential discrepancies by specifying that its practitioners are “coaches” on its platform. These trainers would largely be recommended through referrals, which Kim says could help ensure a certain level of quality.
However, startups like Ami still face a challenge in the form of mental health stigma, which is prevalent across Asia. Seeking mental health support remains a problem in a region where the very concept of mental illness is repeatedly undermined. A 2020 academic review of stigma against mental illness in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and Thailand found that mental illness was seen as a personal weakness and therefore less socially acceptable, among other issues.
Kim says one antidote to stigma is to reframe mental health as “mental wellness,” from which everyone, not just the mentally ill, can benefit. With Ami’s support, employees can discuss any topic that comes to mind, creating a long-term relationship. Based on his test runs, Ami found that, on average, at least 40% of employees used the platform after two months, while Kim says that existing solutions in the mental health space rank in “a single low digit” in terms of employee adoption.
At the end of the day, Ami seeks to make tangible improvements in employee wellness where other corporate-provided wellness solutions are underutilized or miss the mark. Kim hopes that as an increasing number of employees share Ami, reluctant users will be encouraged to try the services, ensuring a high rate of engagement and retention.
“The last thing we want to be is a product or benefit that a company buys for a PR launch and then sits on the shelf,” Kim smiles. “What we consider very, very important is the percentage of employees who actually use our solutions and continue to use our solutions over time.”