Neuroflow Tackles Mental Health Stigma with Data
Veteran-run startup launched with support from Bunker Labs PHL.
After five years in the army and a tour of duty in Iraq that included leading a platoon of 40 soldiers in combat, Chris Molaro, co-founder and CEO of Philadelphia startup Neuroflow, saw the effects of anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) firsthand.
Molaro recognized that his fellow soldiers were not receiving proper mental health care due to indefinite diagnoses or they simply felt a sense of helplessness because there was no measurable way to understand if therapy was working.
“Mental health screening is extremely subjective,” Molaro said. “Surveys are error prone and imprecise. If you break your arm, you can see that it’s broken. But if you have depression, it can be difficult to recognize. People tell you to get ahold of yourselves. It seems invisible.”
Molaro enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015, where he met bioengineering PhD candidate Adam Pardes. The two discovered a shared interest in leveraging data and technology to solve large problems. Molaro and Pardes soon began dreaming up ideas on how to quantify the unreliable science behind diagnosing mental health issues.
“The brain is one of the last frontiers of science. We still don’t know exactly how it works,” Molaro said. “As a result, inefficient mental healthcare has both a tremendous human and economic costs.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 11 million Americans suffer from PTSD, while less than half of them receive treatment. The Center for Disease Control estimates that over $4 billion is spent each year on treating anxiety disorders.
Together, Molaro and Pardes devised Neuroflow, a platform that delivers mental health data in real time. Using third-party heart rate monitors, EEGs, or neuro-headsets, Neuroflow detects instantaneous changes in heart and brain activity to measure anxiety, stress, focus, and relaxation. The platform seamlessly integrates with the wearable medical devices to deliver live data on a computer or phone’s internet browser.
Psychologists and psychiatrists, historically dependent on intuition in clinical sessions, can now use Neuroflow as a powerful, data-driven tool to demonstrate and support decisions when treating anxiety disorders, PTSD, phobias, and more.
“Mental health, unfortunately, has such a negative stigma, like it’s something to be ashamed of,” Molaro said. “We wanted to turn something subjective into something quantifiable.”
Since incorporating in spring 2016, Molaro and Pardes have methodically developed and improved their product, including plenty of new iterations and wrong turns.
“I’m a big proponent of the quote ‘Fail faster, succeed sooner,’” Molaro said. “Change happens, you have to learn from your mistakes and work toward proving your hypothesis.”
The Neuroflow team now boasts nine members, all Philadelphia-based. Molaro looked to his military experience to lead the company, often organizing morning runs and workouts for employees.
“I learned from the army that organizations are much more effective when everyone knows each other and there’s a sense of camaraderie.”
To sustain the company while the platform was in development, Neuroflow won a number of grants and local startup competitions, including the Wharton Healthcare Conference Shark Tank, Wharton Innovation Fund, Wharton Venture Award, the Innovation Award at the Wharton Startup Challenge.
Neuroflow also participated in the Greater Philadelphia Veterans Network Shark Tank, which introduced the founders to Comcast NBCUniversal partner Bunker Labs PHL, a nonprofit organization and incubator for military veteran-led startups.
“Bunker Labs has been phenomenal with the amount of resources they make available to the veteran community,” said Molaro.
This summer, Neuroflow’s beta version is being rolled out to a select group of initial paying users, including two enterprise client hospital systems and private mental health clinicians.
Organizations outside of healthcare are already seeing other potential uses for Neuroflow, too. Molaro and Pardes have been approached by sports teams seeking analytics for mental stress in game situations and law enforcement agencies want to measure trainees’ reactions to emergencies.
With enormous opportunities for funding and growth on the horizon, Neuroflow appears destined to become one of Philadelphia’s most successful med-tech startups. For Molaro and Pardes, though, their mission is just as important as turning profits.
“We set out to change the way the public views mental health and Neuroflow can do that.”