Mental health firms achieve global growth with the support of programs and services from the Trade Commissioner Service

Healthcare systems worldwide have long prioritized physical health over mental health. This has begun to change, however, as innovators develop new ways to apply advances in digital technologies to improve mental healthcare. The isolation and stress caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic have greatly increased demand for effective digital therapeutics for mental health treatment.

Mobio Interactive and The House of Purpose are two Canadian firms with different strategies for improving mental health treatment but both leveraged Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) to achieve success in foreign markets.

Therapeutic app finds harmony in international markets

Mobio Interactive made headlines around the world in 2019, when its digital therapeutic became the first in history to outperform an active control (placebo) in an independent peer‑reviewed study. Known as Am Mindfulness (pronounced “ahm”), the digital therapeutic application uses a smartphone camera and proprietary software to objectively measure stress, then deliver personalized resilience training. Along with reducing stress levels, Am Mindfulness has also been shown to improve the ability of users to concentrate, and has been used by people in more than 100 countries.

The roots of Mobio Interactive lie in founder Mark Thoburn’s passions for video‑game design, biofeedback and meditation. Thoburn studied at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) University in Toronto, Ontario, and recognized an opportunity to bridge the gap between computational diagnostics, psychology and user experience.

“Our understanding of brain function has increased exponentially during the last few decades,” says Thoburn. “We now know that it’s possible to create new connections and pathways in the brain throughout adulthood, for instance—a concept known as neuroplasticity. Our work aims to promote neuroplasticity that prevents and treats mental illness, and that enhances performance—a concept my co‑founder and long‑time friend Bechara Saab calls therapeutic neuroactivity.”

Mark Thoburn
Mark Thoburn, co‑founder of Mobio Interactive

Bechara Saab
Bechara Saab, co‑founder of Mobio Interactive

Saab is an accomplished neuroscientist who earned a PhD in medicine from the University of Toronto. Together, the two envisioned a way to harness the potential of digital technologies to measure and improve mental health, particularly by reducing stress levels. They secured the research partnerships and initial funding needed to start development application and launch clinical studies.

“When the first randomized controlled trial validated Am Mindfulness, I decided to leave my job as a principal investigator at the Zurich Psychiatric Hospital,” says Saab, Mobio Interactive’s CEO and chief scientist. “Mark and our entire team are determined to make a difference in the world by improving access to quality mental healthcare.”

Rather than sell direct to consumers, Mobio Interactive follows a phased business model anchored on clinical validations. Partnerships in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries enable Mobio Interactive to fund clinical studies and use the results to improve the efficacy of its offerings. The company credits the TCS for helping to validate its business model and for identifying potential clients abroad.

“The Canadian Technology Accelerator was particularly valuable for us,” says Saab. “So too was the introduction a trade commissioner made to the COO of Manulife in China back in 2017. At the time, we wanted to identify the best way to get our digital therapeutics into the hands of people in Canada and around the world.”

Am Mindfulness is now available in five languages and the company is in negotiations with a French insurance company keen to make the application available to its beneficiaries. In April 2020, the National Health Service of the U.K. ranked Am Mindfulness as the top health app in the categories of stress, mindfulness and anxiety.

“On its own, AI (artificial intelligence) does nothing,” says Saab. “AI needs a purpose. That purpose at Mobio Interactive is to create something that makes a tangible difference in people’s lives. Digital therapeutics is an emerging and exciting field of healthcare and I believe it will eventually surpass pharmacotherapy in both clinical impact and market value.”

Emotions at work

Also based in Toronto, The House of Purpose applies the latest research into brain function and mindfulness to a different mission. Rather than develop applications, the company provides a range of mentoring services in the realm of emotional intelligence, also known as EQ (emotional quotient), to improve the mental health and emotional well‑being of its clients’ employees.

Javier Santos
Javier Santos, co‑founder of The House of Purpose

“The concept of neuroplasticity also applies to emotions,” says Javier Santos, co‑founder of The House of Purpose. “We can develop emotional skills and learn to harness our thoughts and feelings to live more fulfilling and productive lives—to feel better and to live better.”

In discussions with his co‑founder, a psychoanalyst, Santos recognized that he derived greater joy from helping others than from his own career. Together, they developed a plan to help businesses improve levels of employee satisfaction through the development of emotional skill sets and launched The House of Purpose in 2015.

“EQ training used to be a perk—something that companies would offer to attract and retain top employees,” says Santos. “Now it’s a must‑have for everyone.”

The House of Purpose provides a range of mentorship and emotional support services. The company helps employees to harness their emotional capital, and use the so‑called soft skills needed to handle work‑related stress, prevent conflict and motivate themselves.

“Organizations, particularly large organizations, rely increasingly on high‑tech to enable collaboration and communication,” says Santos. “This causes employees to disengage from their colleagues, which often leads to conflict. Empathy is like any other skill or ability: we gradually lose it if we don’t practice it regularly.”

A focus on emotional intelligence not only sets The House of Purpose apart from other HR consultancy firms, but also helps drive its success. In 2020, The House of Purpose was a finalist in the Canadian HR Awards and received the Diverse Supplier of the Year award from the Canadian LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce.

“Our approach is based on the fact that our personalities evolve over time,” says Santos. “The stories we tell ourselves influence who we become. The House of Purpose helps employees create more positive narratives.”

Initially, the company secured clients in Canada and worked with the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) to explore markets in other countries. The company participated in both of Canada’s LGBTQ+ trade missions to the U.S.

“The TCS introduced us to many prospects that quickly became clients, particularly in California,” says Santos. “We don’t want to grow too quickly, though. We’re motivated more by helping individuals than by growing the company.”

TCS Support

The Trade Commissioner Service helps Canadian businesses grow by connecting them with its funding and support programs, international opportunities, and its network of trade commissioners in more than 160 cities worldwide.

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