How to Pitch a Mental Health Startup: 10 Lessons Learned From 150 Pitches

Updated: Feb 3

Article written by Stephen Hays

In 2018, I almost lost my life to addiction and untreated bipolar disorder.

In 2019, I tried to raise a seed fund to invest in mental health startups. Investors laughed at me and told me they would never give money to someone who, at that time, only had a few months of sobriety. So, I launched What If Ventures as a syndicate.

In January 2020, we invested in our first mental health startup (Foresight Mental Health) with 15 investors in our syndicate. As we near the end of 2020, we have invested in eight mental health startups, deploying a total of $4.6mm, and we have grown our investor base to over 3,000 investors.

We have talked to more than 1,000 founders who are building in the mental health space. Many of them ask for help and advice around similar things. While we can’t stop what we are doing and help everyone one-on-one, we did realize we could build a program to help accelerate company building in this sector.

So, we launched the What If Fellowship — a cohort-based program to help entrepreneurs accelerate their startups toward their end goals (which could be raising money, or not, depending on the business).

At the time of this writing, the first cohort is coming to a close. Over the last two months, we hosted over a dozen pitch practice sessions where our founders had a chance to pitch for three minutes and get two minutes of feedback from an active mental health investor (some VCs, some angels, etc.). The direct feedback was very impactful for these founders, but so was the secondary feedback they received by hearing what these investors said to their peers during pitch practice.

I learned a lot from this feedback as well and put together a list of the 10 most common questions and points of feedback that we heard over the course of the more than 150 pitches in the last eight weeks during our program. I wanted to share that feedback here.

1. Why you?

Most people, including investors and founders, have been touched by mental health differences or addiction in one way or another. Just about everyone building or investing in this space has a personal reason for doing so. Make sure you communicate your “why” early in your pitch so you forge a personal connection with the person on the other side of the table.

2. Frame the Problem Clearly

It is not enough to simply use some stats from the NAMI website showing that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness each year (or some other widely known statistic). Just regurgitating random statistics may impress an investor who has never seen them before, but you need to clearly and concisely articulate who feels what pain and how painful it is for them, as well as how many people you think could benefit from the solution you’re about to propose. Oftentimes, I see founders relying on “1 in 5 people have mental health problems” and that’s just not good enough here. Get specific.

3. Show the Cost of the Problem

For the people who feel the pain point, exactly how painful is it? Is solving the problem even worth it to them or to whomever is paying for it? The answer is mostly likely yes, so find a way to convince someone of that in clear and simple language.

4. How effective is the solution?

You’d be shocked at how many pitches don’t even touch on clinical effectiveness, which often makes me wonder if there’s any scientific validity to what is being presented at all. In order to avoid that inherent doubt in the mind of the investor, tackle this at the onset. Talk about how someone other than you has produced concrete clinical research that validates your thesis, showing that the problem can be solved effectively.

5. How are you different?

The human experience is quite consistent am