Mind Over Matter—Sitting Down With Amigo
In 2021, the mental health conversation is louder than ever before. Medical infrastructure needs to catch up to this conversation. Seeking mental help can be daunting, not only because of the stigma that surrounds it, but also lack of accessibility to quality services. Amigo is a tech startup by four MIT students aimed at developing an integrated online platform that connects professionals to those seeking help. An affordable healthcare initiative driven by Arko Chattopadhyay-CEO, Enrique Ferrao-CTO, Pranav Reddy-VP of Engineering & Design, Priyanshu Gupta-Chief Marketing Officer & Development Head, and Mohammad Shifaz-Head of Operations. The MIT Post got down to business with the co-founders of Amigo to break down their journey thus far.
Was there any specific reason which inspired you to create a start-up addressing mental health issues? Any particular incident or experience?
Arko: I faced the need to seek some help because of personal issues I was going through. I never found a good service out there, online. And offline I just wasn’t ready to go. It was something I wanted to keep to myself. Later that year in the Manipal Hackathon 2020 there was a problem statement related to health care and that was on mental health. The other co-founders entered this particular problem statement as a team. I didn’t participate at first, but Pranav pushed me to try. So I found some other members and gave it a shot. I happened to qualify for the national finals. We didn’t win owing to too many features to be built in very little time. However, we got a lot of key insights. The rest of my team left saying it was just a Hackathon project. I pursued it further, talking to people in Manipal, the student welfare department and trying to come up with a solid idea and build it into a proper startup. This was something I was passionate about, creating new infrastructure for the mental health market. I reached out to Pranav, Enrique and Priyanshu and all of them agreed to join. Priyanshu wasn’t sure how much of a help he would be at first, and now he heads Development. I had worked with Pranav and Enrique before. They now handle servers, website development and the like. That’s how the team came together. We started talking to therapists and conducting surveys. We work closely with the counsellors at the Student welfare department. We found that this is a product we can build, there is a vacancy in the market. And that is how we started. This took about a year to come together.
Priyanshu: I am a junior here. I met the other members as seniors in the Student Project Rugved Systems AI department. I didn’t think that I could be a part of something like this with my seniors. But here I am.
As young entrepreneurs, could you elaborate on the world of startups. How did you navigate it? What kind of help did you need and where did you find it?
Priyanshu: An advice to fellow batchmates. Just stay put. You don’t have to reach Mars in a month. Have a simple idea and think of its implementation, don’t wait for the perfect time, there is no such thing. Just take the first big step. Initially, we were also having second thoughts if we should go with this. But then we decided and went ahead. We realised-Yes we can do it. Even though others could have come up with this idea, no one did it. No one has really made any mental health focussed app in the country till now. I know it sounds like a cliché to “take a risk”. But honestly, it is not a cliché. The other members of my team, my seniors have dropped placements though they are perfectly qualified. They are taking that risk, to be completely focused on this.
Arko: Don’t panic. We panicked about 3 months into full-time development of the product. We had doubts about the business model and its profitability, whether anybody would invest in us. We almost pivoted to a food tech app. After talking to many people in the startup industry, we noticed that most companies don’t make it to the 4-month mark. They lose motivation and drive. So the team matters. The people you are working with. Even if you pivot you need the team. Make a team and start building. Don’t panic.
Can you tell us about how one goes about getting investors? How do you present yourself and such?
Arko: Few of them have reached out to us. Investors are always looking for investment opportunities and they would love to come in as early as possible to get a major share in the company. So they are always actively scouting for startups. They must have come across us somewhere and then approached us.
Priyanshu: Sometime last year a VC contacted us, cause everyone knows that mental health is gonna be the next big thing, one of the next big markets. They wanted to invest, but we wanted to completely build the product first. We want to see how it works and then reach out to investors.
How has MUTBI (Manipal Universal Technology and Business Incubator) helped you? Any mentors who’ve played a major role?
Arko: We approached them for incubation and we are now in the final phase. We are talking to their business experts to see if our business model works. We are also in contact with other founders from MUTBI. Reaching out to them to hear about their journey and experiences. I spoke to the director of the Student Welfare Department, Miss Geetha M. and she told us that all her counsellors were available to us and to go ahead and approach them. About 7 months down the line we are actively working with them to build the product. Some of the Faculty in my branch are actively sharing our venture on social media. They are very excited about it, to grow the startup culture at Manipal. Out there, BITS Pilani has 5 or 6 unicorns, Swiggy, Big Basket to name a few. Manipal does not have such an active startup ecosystem yet. And we want to be an example to promote startup culture in Manipal.
The advantage of an app-based service goes beyond just convenience. Can you tell us about the benefit/role anonymity plays when someone is trying to reach out for help?
Priyanshu: About the anonymity feature you mentioned, there is complete privacy within the system that we have developed. When a user opens the site, it is completely their choice which therapist they want to talk to and at what time. Everything is the user’s choice. We play no role in deciding who the user talks to. We have the video calling and voice calling features within the application so that you don’t need Google Meet or Zoom links. There is no need to contact the therapists outside of the platform we have created.
Arko: What we noticed is the lack of innovation in this field. There is no uniformity and nothing is aggregated into one single platform. So that’s what we are trying to do. And the anonymity feature is not just important for the client but also the therapists. Even though their name and speciality is information that is out there, other personal details should not be going out. Our therapists have told us in the past that they have received calls where they’ve been harassed. Our platform helps to weed out spam. We cater to those who come seeking help.
Therapy is often about correcting fundamental mistakes that parents have been making for centuries, resulting in adverse consequences years later. How have your parents supported you? Would you like to give them a shout out?
Priyanshu: My family has been very supportive when it comes to this venture of ours, especially my father. He openly told me that he is even okay with me putting five years into this startup. He is always keen to know what is happening with Amigo and if there is any way in which he can help out.
Arko: In fact, if it was not for Priyanshu’s dad we would not have an iOS app right now. His dad got him a Macbook which was needed for the iOS app development process. Coming to my parents, the fact that I am not sitting for placements and building a startup did raise some eyebrows but now they seem to be coming around it.
Your Instagram page says that it only takes 3 simple steps, can you elaborate on what those steps might be?
Arko: Choose the therapist, pick the slot and pay online. We have divided the kinds of counselling sessions available topic wise. Once you select the topic, a list of therapists comes up who specialize on that particular topic, after which you pick the therapist you would like to have your session with. Once that’s done all you need to do is book the slot and your counselling session is set up. Even with regards to payment, we have all the options available from UPI to credit cards.
Priyanshu: Speaking of topics we have 24 total topics to choose from ranging from work-related stress to couple therapy.
Arko: Even when it comes to the online session itself, other platforms usually conduct their session on skype or some other third party platform, with Amigo you can join in the session through the application 5-10 minutes before the slot timing by merely clicking on the “Join Session” button.
The counselling team can speak 12 languages and this is a highlight for anyone who comes across your app. Was this a happy coincidence or something you actively sought out?
Arko: It’s something that was always on our minds since we are talking about people feeling safe and opening up. When it came to recruiting counsellors our main objective was to verify their credentials. We have 35 therapists in total and we have run stringent background checks with regards to their academic qualifications as well. And in this process, we always kept in mind the diversity of our country.
Priyanshu: From the beginning, our objective has been to reach out to as many people as possible. Especially people from tier – II and tier–III cities of our country. Undoubtedly, it is far easier for one to open up about their feelings in their mother tongue which is the language they are most comfortable in.
Were there any particular setbacks you had to deal with along this journey of launching a startup? If so, could you tell us a bit about those setbacks?
Arko: A lot of people are not professionals in India, be it from banking to other legal formalities. Often processes can be very bureaucratic and little things can take 1-2 months’ time. If you were to compare it to how it happens in places like the US, these things don’t take much time. For example, even if a person wants to set up a bank account in India it can often take up to a week’s time. There is a great need for infrastructure in the mental health space in India so we definitely saw the potential of our idea.
Priyanshu: I work on the technical side of things, so I often face setbacks with regards to sorting bugs in our code out and similar problems. But at the end of the day, we know that our venture is something that has a lot of potential and that’s what keeps driving us forward on a daily basis.
Featured Image Credits: Amigo