Gold Coast psychologist turned entrepreneur Dervla Loughnane has secured $72,000 for her startup Virtual Psychologist, in a bid to make it easier for people to seek mental health help in a comfortable and private way.
Founded in 2015, the Virtual Psychologist application connects mental health professionals with users, allowing them to receive on-demand counselling via text message in a service Loughnane refers to as “the Uber of psychology”.
The startup received $72,000 in funding after pitching to a panel of judges as part of the Optus Future Makers program, and was one of four winning startups to share in $300,000 to further develop their and scale their offerings.
Loughnane had previously received $10,000 as part of the four-month Future Makers program to develop her concept before pitching to the judges at the close of the program this month.
This cash injection will be used to invest into training the professionals delivering the counselling services through the app, expanding the startup’s marketing efforts, and scaling the platform, first in Australia and then to New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific region.
Loughnane admits she was “speechless” when it was announced Virtual Psychologist had won the funding, after initially thinking she “didn’t stand a chance” pitching against the other seven members of her cohort.
“I was with some really clever people and amazing ideas,” she tells StartupSmart.
“To say I was speechless is an understatement. The impact this money is going to have, and how many more lives we can save took my breath away.”
Also sharing in the $300,000 prize money on offer as part of the Future Makers program were Danny Hui, who secured $100,000 to build ‘Sameview’, a communication platform for disabled children’s care; Michael D’Rosario, who took home $47,000 for his ‘’Learner Library’ subscription textbook service; and Angus Robilliard, who secured $11,000 to build a tailored case management system to assist the South Cares Rabbitohs staff in supporting Indigenous high school students.
Making mental health accessible
The concept for Virtual Psychologist was born on an early morning train to Brisbane.
“I spend a lot of time commuting, and I was just noticing how many people are communicating via their phones as opposed to talking to each other,” Loughnane says.
“I commuted into Brisbane each day and I’d look at what seemed like some really unhappy people. I thought, here I am as a psychologist, I could help these people.”
As a psychologist working in the field for 17 years, Loughnane looked at these unhappy faces and saw a solution.
“I sat back and thought, surely my time could be better utilised to help these people in a way that was comfortable and safe. I thought, could we be the Uber of psychology?”
This led Loughnane to found Virtual Psychologist, and the platform now works with corporates Australia-wide to provide their employees with convenient, accessible text-based counselling. Virtual Psychologist also works with social enterprises and youth organisations to provide services at cost or for free, and is currently working with farmers Australia-wide to offer text-based support services.
The startup is now seeing a 27% month-on-month increase in user utilisation and hours spent on the platform, Loughnane says, and is expanding its user base thanks to word-of-mouth referrals. This growth has been kickstarted by the Optus Future Makers program, Loughnane says, which she says was an invaluable introduction into the world of building and scaling a startup.
“Joining the program helped me get my head around finance, social media, marketing strategy, everything that you need to do to run and scale a business,” she says.
“I went into it thinking this will be a good chance of getting a bit of money, but I got out of it far more than money — the experience and contacts were amazing.”
The businesses selected for the program were mentored for four months, with mentors and advisors from Optus providing workshops and assistance to help the founders hone their concept and develop their pitch.
Two of the funding winners, Danny Hui and Michael D’Rosario, will now go on to attend the 2017 Future Makers Asia Pacific Program, a three-day event hosted by Singaporean telecommunications provider Singtel, where they will join fellow Future Makers winners from the Philippines and Singapore. Hui and D’Rosario will also have the opportunity to pitch to investors at the Impact Investment Summit, and well as the chance to score a share of $SGD60,000 ($56,403 ) in funding from Singtel.