“The pandemic made me pause and reflect on the work that I was doing and how I was spending my time,” said Heather Townsend, co-founder of Even Health. Heather had met David Black while they pursued their MBAs at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and he had an idea.
David’s vision was to deliver app-based mental health services through support groups for targeted communities. David, who was searching for a technical co-founder at the time, had multiple colleagues recommend Heather.
Together, they created Even Health in 2020. Flash forward to today, the platform now supports more than 80K+ employees, with more 98% of members reporting improved wellbeing following moderated peer-support groups.
As graduates of 1501 Health’s first cohort, David and Heather spoke with us about their journey so far, and where they intend to go in the future.
Q: You have two flagship support-group products: Cabana, professionally moderated peer-support groups and on-demand content for healthcare workers, and Third Room, spiritual counseling services designed for military service members. How are these set up to meet the unique needs of each audience?
David: At the start of the pandemic, we received a one-year contract with the Air Force to connect chaplains anonymously with airmen through a virtual platform. Since it wasn't at home or wasn't on base, it was the ‘third room:’ virtual.
The Air Force wanted us to develop dual-use technology that could be applied across the federal government more broadly or used outside the government.
Having just taken our concept from cocktail napkin to product, we looked at our platform, which allowed people to connect anonymously in groups and shared support settings.
We thought about the groups we could serve, and we conducted focus groups with healthcare professionals. It resonated well. When you look at the research, healthcare workers are a very high-risk population for mental health issues. That’s where we went next.
Heather: With Cabana we knew we’d created a mental health support space that met the distinctly different needs of healthcare workers.
We came up with the name Cabana because it’s a communal space that offers protection but is open. The underlying technology in Cabana and Third Room is the same, but the way we deliver support is unique to those populations.
Q: Over the past decade we’ve seen the rise of online mental health services. How did you design your digital and VR services to stand out from the crowd?
David: There are mental health innovations that are pulling from the same pool of available therapists, and that's great, but we wanted to make mental healthcare even more accessible by connecting individuals who may not need acute therapy but want ongoing support.
We're not creating a medium of support that hasn't already existed, but we're taking a unique, targeted approach. Knowing a population well is what differentiates us.
You don't know when a crisis is going to hit. If we can provide support that engages you on a regular, day-to-day basis, then in those moments of adversity, you already know who to call.
You already have the support infrastructure there. All too often we don't know where to turn early enough and end up at the crisis stage. We want to focus on improving lives every single day.
Heather: A lot of mental health resources are focused on 1:1 therapy or one-way video recordings guised as “groups”.
We want to engage people, and not provide just a one-way conversation or monologue. For us, it’s group interaction and engagement that matters. We allow up to 12 people in a group, so it's designed to be intimate for more impact. People are meant to use their voices.
Q: Even Health supports healthcare workers, members of the military and federal contractors. Are there groups you hope to serve in the future?
David: Opportunities extend well beyond the two communities we currently serve. However, the way we reach individuals would need to be tailored.
We believe this model of leveraging thoughtful, peer-delivered support should be available to anyone who wants it. Mental health support needs to be population-specific, and that may be profession-based, which is our current focus. But it can expand in other directions.
An accountant may identify more with being a working mom than being an accountant. The layers that define us and how we connect with one another are personal and specific.
Q: How did you discover 1501 Health?
David: We're local to the area so we were familiar with both LifeBridge Health and CareFirst, and we heard about 1501 Health through a couple different entrepreneurial groups.
Being able to have a group that was focused just on the healthcare industry with subject matter experts resonated with us, along with the benefits of the structure of the program. Also, we recognized we would benefit from having our own support group.
Q: You recently were awarded third place and a $500K grant for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Mission Daybreak Grand Challenge, which aims to prevent veteran suicide. What does this honor mean to you?
David: Suicide prevention is near and dear to our team members. I lost a family member to suicide when I was young. It creates an imprint. When you have an opportunity to work on suicide prevention, you take it.
We have a number of advisors in the behavioral health space, one of which is a suicide prevention specialist out of Emory University.
The hope with mental health support is to prevent someone from reaching the crisis stage, and if they get there, providing a path out. That's something we can act on today: being able to help and be thoughtful contributors to advancing the support systems that we have out there.
We’re proud to have the opportunity to jump into an arena we can support, and not just the veteran community but others as well.
Q: Is there a piece of advice that has stuck with you as your company has grown?
David: Talk to strangers.
Through 1501 Health we’ve forged so many new relationships and met a lot of people with a lot of perspectives. The program helped us make more confident decisions in our work because they connected us with people who wouldn’t have crossed our paths before.
The more conversations you have, the more opportunities you get to learn something.
Heather: As the company grows from three employees to 10 and then 20, the challenges change. It’s been helpful to meet and learn from our cohort members and advisory board.
Being a founder of a startup is tough work. It’s good to know you're not alone in that. It’s ironic that, with 1501 Health, we’ve found our support group for launching our support group platform.
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs | February 2023
The Daily Record | May 2022
Baltimore Sun | May 2022
Technical.ly | June 2022
About 1501 Health
1501 Health is a unique partnership between Healthworx and LifeBridge Health, representing expertise in both health insurance and financing (payers) and healthcare delivery and services (providers). The investment and incubation program empowers entrepreneurs to get their innovative solutions to market and expand their impact in healthcare quality, access and affordability. To learn more about 1501Health, visit www.1501Health.com.
Healthworx operates at the intersection of healthcare and innovation by creating, co-creating and investing in companies that are improving healthcare quality, accessibility, affordability and equity. As the innovation and investment arm of CareFirst, Healthworx envisions a healthier future for all people by changing the way health works. To learn more about Healthworx, visit https://www.healthworx.com.
About LifeBridge Health
LifeBridge Health is one of the largest, most comprehensive providers of health services in Maryland. LifeBridge Health includes Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, Grace Medical Center and related affiliates. For more information, visit www.lifebridgehealth.org.