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How mental health looks in 2021: For companies, customers & founders


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How mental health looks in 2021: For companies, customers & founders

In light of Mental Health Week, the DMZ sat down with mental health startup founders for an inside scoop on how their companies are addressing mental health.

This week is
Mental Health Week in Canada (May 3-9, 2021), and this year’s focus is to #GetReal about how you feel. That means the Canadian Mental Health Association is calling on us to express how we feel…“name it, don’t numb it”.

As you probably don’t need reminding, the past year has been a time of much anxiety and isolation. Almost everyone is feeling some level of worry, loneliness, sadness, anger, exhaustion and (as identified by this viral article in the New York Times) languish

Having a wide variety of emotions is human. Feeling and naming our emotions – even the uncomfortable ones – is part of good mental health.

To contribute to this week’s dialogue, we sat down with founders from two of our startups to talk mental health. In conversation is Mohsen Omrani, CEO & President of OPTT Inc., along with Alli’s Sarah Rennick, CEO & Co-Founder, and Cherry Xu, CTO & Co-Founder.

Here’s what they had to say:

Q: How is your company tackling mental health?

Sarah Rennick, CEO & Co-Founder of Alli

Sarah: Alli is our way of helping parents prioritize themselves – and become happier and more confident in the process. We do this by helping parents find support from licensed therapists who specialize in their current stage of parenthood. 

Our matching algorithm uses a 3-minute questionnaire completed by the parent to dive into their challenges and goals, and we use that to match them with the most compatible therapist. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and we would add that it also takes the right support team.  

Mohsen: OPTT is a virtual mental health platform targeted at healthcare organizations. Our goal is to help increase their care capacity and personnel efficiency by 4x. Instead of providing care to a limited number of patients, our vision is to develop clinically-validated, scalable solutions that allow clinicians to deliver high-quality mental health care to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

We recently announced a new partnership with Curatio to create a one-stop app with trusted news, community support and professional health care services. We are looking to expand this partnership by bringing a group of health care providers who are focused on mental health or chronic conditions, such as diabetes. We’re also now actively looking for local and federal entities to pilot the app with their members.


Q: How has the pandemic affected your work in the mental health space?

Mohsen Omrani, CEO & President of OPTT Inc.

Mohsen: For us at OPTT, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a turning point. We recognized, early on, that this challenge would create a silent mental health pandemic, which may only worsen in scope and severity in the months to come if left unchecked. To make matters worse, our current health system is strained and unable to meet demands. We saw an urgent need to develop innovative approaches to expand the capacity of mental health care delivery.

Already established as a virtual mental health platform, we teamed up with our clinical partner to develop and validate a new care plan that directly addresses mental health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our commercial partners have already achieved exciting results. The program has shown to reduce both anxiety and depression symptoms of employees by 40% in just the first five weeks of the nine-week program.

Cherry: That’s a great question. The truth is, the idea for Alli actually arose during the pandemic. We had been running our startup, Mama Mobile, which is a service that helps busy moms in the GTA and Ottawa get in-home massage therapy services, and with all of the lockdowns, we knew we needed to find different ways to support our communities. 

We did what any founder-at-heart does and we conducted 100 customer calls to talk with moms about what they needed most! What we heard was a resounding call for more mental health support. From there, Alli was born.


Cherry Xu, CTO & Co-Founder of Alli

Q: Have your customers’ needs changed with the pandemic?

Cherry: We’ve seen our customers’ needs change with the pandemic. In particular, we’ve seen parents struggle with added responsibilities and fewer breaks. With less time for themselves, it’s also been challenging for parents to find therapists that they can connect with and that truly focus on their life stage. 

Many parents put their own needs on the back burner – if this was true before COVID-19, it’s even more evident now. That’s why we’re trying to make it easier for parents to get matched with the right therapist.

Mohsen: Yes, definitely. Many telemedicine companies that previously didn’t have mental health services have since added our product to their offerings. Plus, with increasing demands for care, our customers have looked to us to provide additional capacity and support.

As a result, our partnerships and sales have accelerated and the number of patients using our platform has tripled.


Q: What advice would you give to startup founders to help protect their mental wellbeing?

Sarah: This is such an important question. One stigma that I’d like to disrupt is the mindset that you only need mental health support when you’re in crisis. So many of us wait until we hit that breaking point to reach out to a therapist. 

I recognized, a while back, that it’s incredibly important to give my mental health regular TLC. Entrepreneurs are constantly on the line between burnout and the next big win, and we need to find ways to recharge. Of course this is easier said than done, but I try to stay accountable by making time for bi-weekly therapy appointments. These have been a good chance to learn more about myself. 

I’ve also been learning how to better protect my energy, and what works (for me) to recharge it. I feel like it’s a process of continually sharpening my communication skills so I can name my emotions and ask for what I need, while also working to understand the world around me a little better. It’s not easy, but I think these are things we don’t talk about enough as entrepreneurs.

Mohsen: These are all great points that Sarah makes. Adding to that, I think it’s important for startup founders to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s so important to pace ourselves and remember to take care of ourselves – every day, every month, every year. 

And most importantly, when the pressure is too high for one person, it’s important to find a good support person to talk to. There is zero shame in asking for help.

Do you need mental health support?

If you’re struggling with your mental health, know that you’re not alone. 

A great resource you can check out is confidential video counselling offered by DMZ alumni Inkblot Therapy. Inkblot’s services are completely free to many members of the DMZ community. This includes staff, their families, Incubator program startups, alumni and their families.

If you want to join the conversation on mental health and #GetReal about how you feel, head over to our social media accounts where we’ll be continuing the dialogue.

Ashu and Andrew met in DMZ’s first Sandbox cohort in 2018. Now, they’re revolutionizing the mortgage industry.

Ashu and Andrew's headshots

Andrew Wells (Pinch, CEO and Founder, pictured left) and Ashu Syal (Pinch, Director of Product, pictured right) met in the DMZ’s first-ever Sandbox cohort in 2018.

Andrew was an enthusiastic new DMZ founder and Ashu was a newly hired DMZ Program Lead. This duo is now working together at Pinch Financial (Pinch), a DMZ startup that is utilizing AI to revolutionize the mortgage application process. Pinch is a digital platform that makes applying for a mortgage fast, easy, and secure. The platform connects people directly with lenders, taking brokers out of the equation to empower users to make their own decisions. Pinch’s blog makes real-estate insider knowledge accessible for everyone.

We sat down with Andrew and Ashu to learn more about Pinch and the journey that led them to develop the partnership of a lifetime. 

Pinch company logoWhy did you start Pinch?

Andrew: I had just graduated and was working at a bank as an account manager. I hated it. I saw first-hand how awful and inaccessible mortgage applications are, the process is a disservice to hard-working people. I knew there had to be a better way, so I started Pinch.

Broker’s wages have gone up by 400% in the past 12-15 years, but the everyday person’s income has not. I’m not saying all brokers are bad, but the system is broken. I started Pinch to shine a light on the toxicity of the whole process.

Pinch advertisingCan you tell me more about Pinch’s time at the DMZ?

Andrew: We joined the DMZ’s Sandbox program in 2018 with two staff members. Ashu was our Programs Lead and together we created Pinch’s first prototype, raised our first seed round, developed our MVP and then graduated to the Incubator program. We demoed at the 2019 Collision Conference in Toronto (Pinch team pictured on the left with Collision Conference’s Pinch feature TTC ad) and that really sparked important investor relationships at major banks.

We hired our first engineer, then two more engineers and then a designer, currently half of our current staff came directly from relationships we made while part of the DMZ community.

No one has ever done what Pinch is doing. The DMZ understood the gravity of that and gave us all the space, knowledge, and resources we needed to build our business, the right way.

Banking and real estate are both highly regulated industries. How did Pinch break in?

Andrew: It’s true, the mortgage process has not changed since 1997…This makes pitching new tech to banks uniquely hard. Our EiRs (Entrepreneurs in Residence) taught us how to find the right bank executives, stakeholders, and investors and speak their language… we needed that insider knowledge available to founders at the DMZ to successfully break in.

Andrew, what led you to approach Ashu to join your team full time?

Andrew: Everything was going well, but there was this disconnect growing among our marketing, financial and tech development teams. We needed someone who spoke each of our languages and could bring us together. Our best work always happened at the DMZ with Ashu. We knew he was our guy. 

Ashu, why did you want to join the Pinch team?

Ashu: My wife and I had just started applying for a house when Andrew approached me. It took us more than a month to get a mortgage. We went to open houses and people were outbidding us before we even walked through the door. The whole process felt impossible. It was so stressful. I have a lot of empathy for what mortgage applicants go through.

Pinch is creating new startup practices and utilizing old ones where necessary. They are setting people-centred standards not just for the homeownership industry, but for how we build technology in general. Pinch’s mission really aligns with my own values, I’m really excited to be here.

Team working togetherWhat’s next for Pinch?

Andrew: We are launching our product in a new and big way, with big bank partners. It is going to change the way people approach homeownership. It is a fundamental shift in how someone can get a property.

This (buying a house) can be the most important decision of someone’s life. Our team does not take that lightly. I started Pinch to make sure buying a house was accessible and secure for people. That human-centred mission will continue to always drive every decision we make. 

Whether our company is successful in 10 years or not…what we have done is pushed bank executives and mortgage brokers to truly grapple with this topic for the first time ever, and we are really proud of that.

Team chatting over coffeeAshu, what are you most looking forward to in the future?

Ashu: I wouldn’t be where I am today without the right people telling me to stop building my ideas in a basement and come into an incubator space… Making sure that pathway is open to others, particularly for those who historically have a hard time coming into this industry will always be important to me, will forever excite me, especially because of my time at the DMZ. 

DMZ startups like Pinch not only get the tailored support they need to become world-leading businesses but get access to the DMZ’s thriving talent pool of driven industry innovators. 

Learn more about DMZ Sandbox here.

Is Canada the next global leader in tech? Yes.

Some of today’s biggest game-changing startups call Canada home these days. This includes local high-growth companies  like Shopify, WattPad and Element A.I., which secured an eye-watering $135 million investment earlier this year.Even America’s top tech companies have pivoted north in recent years; lured by Canada’s thriving tech scene.Google, Uber and Microsoft have launched new satellite offices this year, while Amazon — the godfather of e-commerce — is considering Toronto for its new North American headquarters.

Canada on the world stage

These new developments may come as a surprise to some, but it really shouldn’t. Canada has one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world and some of the top tech incubators — which churn our new talent and companies every day — are located in the city. However, Toronto’s greatest strength lies in its talent base. Tech innovators attracted by our world-class institutions that include Google’s artificial intelligence lab and million-dollar Vector Institute bring with them investors and venture capitalists that help transform the city.

Of course, Canada’s quickly maturing tech landscape can be confusing. Enter: The DMZ. The startup incubator’s new podcast entitled BusinessCast powered by the DMZ tackles the latest in tech news and innovation.

The first episode in the series investigates Canada’s winning tech streak. Chartered accountant and host Robert Gold chats with DMZ Executive Director Abdullah Snobar about the state of tech entrepreneurship and, more importantly, why the world should care about Canadian startups.Make sure to check out our BusinessCast podcasts here. 

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