Making it Work: Woebot aims to make a digital difference in mental health

Alison Darcy, the company’s founder, says her aim is to provide digital support to clinicians and their patients

Alison Darcy, founder of Woebot: ‘We need digital tools at the front end that free up human therapists for the patients that really need to see a person.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Alison Darcy is clear about what Woebot, the healthtech start-up focused on mental wellbeing, isn’t trying to do.

“We’re not replacing clinicians,” Darcy said of the business, which she founded in 2017. “Woebot can identify when someone needs a higher level of care, and direct them accordingly.”

Darcy, from Foxrock in Dublin, said the idea was not to replace human mental health professionals, but to provide an additional tool for clinicians to use when working with their patients.

“We need tools at the front end that free up human therapists for the patients that really need to see a person. There’s a lot of data that supports this practice, which is called step care. The digital tools that were available before Woebot Health seemed underwhelming to me. They looked like online learning courses, giving information but not providing an actual therapeutic encounter,” Darcy said.

“I wanted to build a digital tool that takes someone through the process of psychotherapy, which is often hard work. That’s where the clinical potency is. Unless you are really engaging in that moment of distress, then you are leaving clinical value on the table.”

Woebot is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Dublin. It currently has 74 staff and has raised $123 million (€110 million) to date. Its digital therapeutic services and software are designed to replicate some of the important aspects of human relationships.

“That’s the way to make stronger, more therapeutically potent digital tools for mental health,” Darcy said.

“There’s a supply problem in that there aren’t enough clinicians. At the same time, there’s a growing mental health crisis. A lot of people are suffering, with not enough resources to help them. In order to address that need, I felt there was a need for stronger digital tools.”

Darcy, who studied psychology in UCD, wants to use Woebot Health to create something that is emotionally accessible to patients but establishes clear standards for digital treatment. She was previously working in Stanford University, designing similar treatments but in an academic setting. She returned to Ireland in 2020 to lead the Dublin office.

“Enterprise Ireland and the IDA have both been great in helping us out. Enterprise Ireland were on the ground with us in San Francisco providing general advice and helped us reintegrate back into Dublin,” she said.

“We are still building. We want to complete our core therapeutics for post-partum depression and adolescents. We’re very close to starting their pivotal trials for Food and Drug Administration approval.”

The business is developing both prescription and non-prescription therapeutics. The reason is to meet all relevant pathways to distribution.

“In the US, a lot of people get their mental healthcare through their employer so we want to be able to offer multiple channels. Our main customers are big health systems with a lot of members, a lot of unmet need, and could do with scalable solutions at the front end,” Darcy said.