Changing the face of mental healthcare in Asia
In April 2020, the full impact of Covid-19 was about to be realised. As people adjusted to lockdowns and much of the world descended into an anxious stasis, it was clear that nations would be permanently remoulded by the experience. For Theodoric Chew, the CEO and co-founder of Intellect, he also faced a critical moment of his own.
Founded in late 2019, Intellect is a Singapore-based startup that provides businesses with a mental health and self-care platform to support employees. Chew was fixed on launching the Beta version of his app while the world teetered on the brink, a moment when mental health support on a global scale had barely been more needed.
Chew, 27, knew what it was like to feel close to breaking point. He had his first panic attack aged 16 and anxiety had plagued him since secondary school. His parents supported him to receive therapy. During his first session it dawned on him “how misunderstood therapy actually is”. In the years since, Chew has gone from “coping to thriving” and Intellect was moulded from personal experience, as well as an awareness of the gaps in local mental healthcare provision. The timing of the launch, however, was unnerving.
Yet while many businesses suffered during the pandemic, Intellect gained momentum. In six months the company accumulated 1 million users and numerous angel investors. In 2021 its year-on-year revenue grew tenfold, and by the start of 2022 Chew had raised US$20 million in funding. From a team of two, it now has more than 100 employees and an ever-larger pool of customers in Asia, where it is focused. On a personal level this has presented challenges. A founder needs to grow as quickly as the company, says Chew, “but this isn’t always easy or possible without a few mistakes along the way”. The goal is also ambitious: to create an end-to-end, ground-up infrastructure for mental healthcare. Chew hopes that if he succeeds, Intellect will reframe how mental health provision can be delivered in the region.
The company aims to provide an alternative to older, more reactive employee assistance programs. These, explains Chew, have traditionally suffered from poor engagement (usually about a 1-2 per cent uptake). It consists of a self-care platform that acts as a bridge between individuals and the care, coaching or therapy that they need. For human resources departments, Intellect provides a range of personalised employee wellbeing services that can be accessed anytime. For employees or private individuals, the platform makes it simple to check in on their wellbeing anonymously.
It ranges from basic self-care advice and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to sessions with qualified therapists. It boasts high efficacy: 93 per cent of users report a reduction in symptoms, according to the results of a three month study involving several hundred participants. Intellect’s own data on the average adoption rates among employees at companies that have signed up to its service suggest an uptake of 20-40 per cent. A common problem, Chew found, was that people want support but don’t know how to take the first step. Intellect aims to be just that.
The concept may not seem so unique in Europe and America, where an ongoing public conversation around mental health has given rise to many apps, businesses and government initiatives in the past decade. In Asia, where there is traditionally more stigma associated with the subject, the sector is relatively young but the need is uniquely high. Workers in Asia suffer high levels of stress; research conducted by McKinsey found that in 2022 one in three workers in the region experienced symptoms of burnout (elsewhere in the world averages one in four). Culture plays a significant role; 90 per cent of employees surveyed in Singapore said that they would not seek help for their mental health due to stigma. “Singapore… but also Seoul, Tokyo, China… these are very performance- and outcome-driven places,” explains Chew. “It is not the healthiest for a person’s mental health.”
It is significant that the push to address this is led by a company with roots in the region. Intellect currently operates across 20 countries and has an inbuilt knowledge of the nuances of each location. “What triggers someone’s stress and anxiety in Singapore will be different to a person in rural Indonesia,” he continues. Chew is also conscious of how to adjust the promotional messaging for each country: “How we approach a market in Japan, for example, will be quite different to how we would approach a market in Australia, which has more maturity when it comes to mental health acceptance.”
Intellect’s mission is to become a best-in-class service. Its current focus is larger companies, but it hopes to embed itself within the broader healthcare infrastructure – such as hospitals and health insurers – where there is vast potential for growth. The company recently announced a strategic investment partnership with the largest private healthcare group across Asia.
For now, Chew takes satisfaction observing the broader cultural change at play. At first, Intellect’s clients were forward-thinking companies, those with open-minded HR leaders. Now it entices a more mainstream audience – decades-old companies, local conglomerates. “Our work is not just finding a solution and shouting about it,” says Chew, “We work hard to help companies with change management – how to accept mental health as a topic – and provide more and more care from there.”
Biography / Key highlights
Founds Existgreat, a global online media publishing platform
Moves to Rakuten-owned travel company Voyagin as the head of affiliate growth and content marketing
Co-founds Intellect with Anurag Chutani in Singapore
Raises US$20 million in funding, and named on Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia list
Intellect serves more than 3 million members in 20 countries