Hacking anxiety: Amsterdam startups developing eMental health solutions

The VU Hackathon Battle bought together five startups that offer innovative technologies to help people with mental health disorders and neurodegenerative diseases to manage anxiety. During the event they finetuned their pitches and embraced a world of partnerships.

Partnership over competition

On 18 and 19 March 2021, five startups engaged in a battle – albeit a friendly battle. Hosted by VU Amsterdam, Amsterdam Medical Data Science (AMDS) and EU-backed project IT4Anxiety, the VU Hackathon Battle: Managing Anxiety via Innovative Technologies gathered these five organisations to aid the development of their innovative solutions. These can all help ease the anxiety of people with mental health issues and neurodegenerative diseases.

After presenting, each company spent the next day-and-a-half being coached and mentored to refine their pitch to better win over potential investors and partners. The event concluded with judges selecting a winner and runner-up, who won €1,500 and €1,000 respectively.

Developing blended therapies with maximum impact

 The IT4Anxiety project connects mental health professionals with startups. It also brings together universities, research centres, higher education institutes and public authorities to help innovations get to market.

IT4Anxiety’s primary goal is to stimulate the development of digital technologies that can form part of a ‘blended therapy’ to ease the anxiety of patients with neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) or post-traumatic stress disorder – both of which are on the rise in North-West Europe due to an ageing population.

IT4Anxiety is all about partnerships and collaboration, something Hans Luijckx, from educational game innovator IJsfontein, highlighted as key to developing innovations in healthcare during an inspiring opening talk: “Over the last 25 years, we stuck to our craft and learned that you don’t have to compete to be successful – you can also work together.”

“Great ideas also need a voice,” noted pitch coach David Beckett of Best3Minutes, who has helped 1,400 startups and scale-ups raise more than €340 million in capital. “There are certain tools that can help you tell your story quickly and effectively. You need to cut to the reality, show your vision, passion and also your vulnerability – you need to be open about what you need to get to the next level. It can be a difficult balance.”

For this hackathon, the judging was based on the level of creativity and innovation, relevance to IT4Anxiety, feasibility, presentation (delivering both professionalism and passion), and clarity on what would be the next steps for each startup.

Built on passion – and vision

 Insan Firdaus presented Myndful, a virtual-reality app for people with addiction problems. Its slogan is ‘recovery starts from your living room’. As both a cognitive therapist and a former addict, Firdaus has passion but was told by the judges that he needed to show more clearly how VR could truly treat addiction. “You have to think more from the patient’s perspective,” Hoogendijk said.

Fokko van der Woude’s startup Tolooba was inspired by his grandmother who suffered from severe memory loss. He discovered that he could engage with her by triggering her memories through photographs. “And, if you gain memories, you gain an identity – along with more self-confidence and a better quality of life,” said Van der Woude. While already partnered with Alzheimer Nederland, his project was deemed too early stage by the judges. Who advised him to create a stronger visual presentation.

Meanwhile, Dr Martin Gevonden of AAA Research already has a proven product. A spin-off from VU Amsterdam, his best-in-class stress-testing wearable is already being used by 250 research labs around the world. However, the judges said he needed more focus on how the device can really impact individual patients – to go beyond being impressive sensor tech and become a viable service.

The runner-up: Netflix for psychotherapists

 The runner-up PsyFlix is known as the “Netflix for psychotherapists” and is already a success. Once upon a time, founders Bram van der Boom and Tim Wind were newly trained psychotherapists and wanted a resource to go to for guidance about how to deal with new patients. In the end, they created it themselves.

Currently with 100 accreditable masterclasses, 40 role plays, 1,400 members and more than 90,000 views in the Netherlands, they want to scale internationally using a subscription system. With a clear business model, the judges said they should move fast – “such a great idea means you could face competition quickly.”

The winner: autonomous VR psychotherapy

 The hackathon was eventually won by Psylaris, another proven success story seeking to scale. The firm uses VR to help patients have more control of their own therapy, which also frees up more time for their therapists. The founders were responding to a real need: in the Netherlands there’s a three-month waiting list for those facing mental health issues.

Psylaris’ products are already being used by 150 therapists, including a co-founder of PsyFlix. “Great company! As a psychologist I use your glasses with satisfaction and am happy to have you in one of our masterclasses on Psyflix,” wrote Tim Wind in the Zoom chat.

On the cusp of a mental healthcare revolution

While the judges were out making their decision, David Daniel Ebert gave a closing pep talk. Ebert is Associate Professor for Clinical Psychology at VU University Amsterdam and Chief Scientific Officer at HelloBetter – a university spinoff turned market leader.

“At HelloBetter, we want to empower as many people as possible to manage their own mental health and improve their quality of life. At first, we were laughed at. But, finally, it’s all falling into place, with insurance companies and regulatory bodies getting onboard. It takes time to build up trust – which is essential. For us, it really helped to build up long-term partnerships so we could try to solve the problem together,” Ebert says. “And we’re all just at the beginning! It’s an excellent time to get involved!”

AI technology for people

Seven Amsterdam knowledge institutes, together with the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Economic Board announced a joint initiative to invest 1 billion euros in the development of responsible AI technologies over the coming ten years. Known as AI technology for people, this partnership focuses on creating research programmes, attracting world-class researchers and equipping students with the latest knowledge of AI in the domains of business, health and citizens.

AI technology for people is a collaborative partnership between the Amsterdam Economic Board, Amsterdam UMC, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek/Netherlands Cancer Institute, Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, the City of Amsterdam, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Sanquin, University of Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Smart Health Amsterdam is the network for data- and AI-driven innovation in Amsterdam’s life sciences and health sector. Join our community.

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