Inspired by war’s trauma, an Army vet’s start-up applies tech to mental health compliance
NeuroFlow is one of 30 finalists in the Inquirer's third annual Stellar StartUps contest.
There's a theme of selfless ambition in Christopher Molaro's bio — a drive to do something "bigger than yourself," as he put it.
First, that meant enrolling in West Point and serving as an officer in the Army for five years. As a platoon leader, he founded a nonprofit, Things We Read, to help grow enlisted soldiers' educational opportunities. A combat deployment to Iraq would expose him to more need.
"It was clear that mental health was a major issue for many people, from all different backgrounds, including a pervasive toll on many of my fellow veterans," he said. "I didn't want to just sit on the sidelines. Something had to be done."
So the native of Long Island, N.Y., who spent his middle and high school years in the Poconos, came off active duty and enrolled at the Wharton School for his M.B.A. After working as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., Molaro partnered with Adam Pardes, a bioengineering doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, and founded NeuroFlow.
One of 30 finalists in the Inquirer's third annual Stellar StartUps contest, NeuroFlow is in the alumni category, added this year for companies that have competed in prior years.
>> READ MORE: And the 2018 Stellar StartUps finalists are …
That's a big deal in a big market, estimated at $6.5 billion annually in the United States. Major depression alone affects more than nine million commercially insured people, according to a report by Blue Cross Blue Shield published in May. By a number of estimates, more than 40 million people struggle with anxiety-related disorders.
"We are uniquely positioned in the market during this extraordinary shift we're seeing in mental health," Molaro said. "It's a super-exciting time."
That shift is behavioral health integration across a spectrum of care providers — including psychology, primary care, and pain management — in recognition that physical and mental healthfulness are not mutually exclusive.
Launched in April 2016, when Molaro, now 30, was in the second year of his Wharton studies and Pardes, now 27, who grew up in Abington, was in pursuit of his doctorate, NeuroFlow was initially funded with $140,000 in winnings from about 10 business plan competitions around the country. They used office space donated by Wharton and Penn.
"This time last year, we saw all the potential but nothing really had been materialized yet," Molaro said in a recent interview.
Key to substantial progression since then was closing a $1.25 million seed round last fall, enabling NeuroFlow to make a couple of key engineering hires and a beta launch with its first paying client. By March 2018, beta tests with 12 clinics were complete with good outcomes, Molaro said.
Now, NeuroFlow's HIPAA-compliant platform is in use in more than 100 clinics and hospitals, and the company of a dozen employees is on pace to reach $1 million in annual recurring revenue by the end of the year.
"I still pinch myself," Molaro said. "I can't believe we've been able to achieve that."
NeuroFlow has benefited from a care industry hungry for ways to better engage patients through evidence-based therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT.
"The challenge and the tragedy is they only work when the patient is engaged and compliant with the steps required to do in CBT," Molaro said. "We know these things work. The patient just has to be compliant and engaged for it to work."
That means, for instance, doing homework. He likened it to physical therapy: If you don't do the stretches and strength training between PT sessions, your recovery will be slowed.
Philadelphia psychiatrist David Clements of Southeastern Executive Health used another workout reference.
"There's no magic pill for the treatment of mental illness," he said. "It's like going to the gym — you can't go one time … and be strong."
But NeuroFlow's software, which he started using with certain patients six to eight months ago, provides feedback that's "a way to have a conversation."
Because NeuroFlow's platform is a clinical tool, a patient cannot use it without invitation by a health-care provider. Once invited, they can have full access to the platform at no cost, Molaro said. The subscription price starts at $39 a month for behavioral-health specialists such as psychologists, therapists, and licensed clinical social workers in private practices. It goes up from there for medical doctors and hospital systems, whose activities on the platform are insurance reimbursable, Molaro said, declining to provide specifics. Prices depend on the size of the medical practice or health-care facility, he said.
Brian Daly, co-owner of Center City Psychological Services in Philadelphia, as well as an associate professor of psychology and an interim department head at Drexel University, was sold on the concept soon after he heard of NeuroFlow and read more about it. Because he works so much with children, Daly is a "strong believer" in the integration of technology in counseling services to improve patient engagement with therapy.
"What we need to do better is meet patients where they're at, that the counseling relationship mimics life more," he said, adding that kids "are certainly engaged" with technology.
For 10 months, Daly has been using NeuroFlow's platform and third party-manufactured wearables, which stream patient biometric data such as heart rate and brain waves for his review. Wearables are add-on features NeuroFlow integrates into its platform; only one-third of its customers use them, Molaro said.
Daly has a patient, a 9-year-old boy who struggles with fear and anxiety around bedtime, wearing an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset from NeuroFlow at night. It tracks and records brain-wave patterns so the child, his parents, and Daly can get real-time feedback on his level of stress — or lack of it. The goal is to get the boy to be comfortable remaining in his bedroom each night.
Daly is so certain of the market need and demand for NeuroFlow's software that he became an investor in the company within the last month.
"We've not often come up with good ways to keep our clients engaged and motivated," he said of the behavioral-health field in general. "Those who are engaged and motivated have the best outcomes. I wanted to invest in a company that is addressing one of these issues we don't always do a great job in."
The following is the complete list of 2018 Stellar StartUps finalists. Winners in each category, along with a grand-prize winner, will be announced Sept. 13 at a gala and networking event at South Bowl. To register to attend, go to www.philly.com/stellarstartups.
Alumni: Keriton LLC, NeuroFlow, TowerView, Tozuda LLC
Food/Restaurants: Dineable, Simply Good Jars, TBJ Gourmet
Health Care: Daughterly Companions, RoundTrip, SFA Therapeutics, Tri-State Training & Safety Consulting
Just Plain Cool Ideas: Pop in Kids Club, REC Philly, Remark Glass
Minority/Women Owned: Employee Cycle, Greppo Technologies, Strados Labs
Products/Services: Houwzer, Instahub, Junto Bicycle Works LTD, Kleer LLC
Second-Act Start-ups: Pathogend, Shuttlebee
Students: Rex Riccardi, Sharing Excess, Wish Respect
Technology: Augean Robotics, Biorealize, Group K Diagnostics, Verif-y