In March, NHSX launched TechForce19 in partnership with PUBLIC, AHSN and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government.A month later, 18 companies were announced as winners of the TechForce19 program and began testing their digital solutions across the UK. In this interview we spoke to Evan Harris, Co-Founder of TechForce19 winner Peppy, to hear more about the company’s TechForce19 journey, deploying technology to support the mental health of new parents.
What do you do at Peppy and why did you embark on this venture?
We’re a digital health company that connects people to expert practitioners during key life transitions, like having a baby, going through menopause, managing mental health, fertility and more.
We work with employers who offer Peppy as a next-generation employee benefit.
We launched Peppy to fill a huge gap in public and private healthcare. In the case of postnatal services, parents have been let down by huge cuts to local government and NHS budgets. The support new parents received in previous generations has simply disappeared, leaving parents to fend for themselves. Menopausal women are also let down. GPs are often poorly trained in menopause and don’t follow NHS guidelines. Even fully trained GPs can’t offer adequate care within a rushed 10 minute appointment. Fertility services are plagued by conflicts of interest. Mental health services are focussed on acute issues and rarely provide any preventative care. The list goes on.
How does your solution help the vulnerable and isolated?
Going through a major life transition can be a lonely experience.
Mums can be racked with guilt because their baby isn’t sleeping through the night. Women going through menopause often have no idea that many of their symptoms are totally normal.
People who usually have robust mental health start to feel overwhelmed and are filled with shame. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help, particularly when you’re not “sick” in the conventional sense. People suffer in silence and the problems mount up. We make it easy for our users to take the first step. We love to hear the loud exhale when our users realise that they are not the only one struggling, that there are often simple ways to improve their lives.
How has your company adapted to tackle Covid-19 related challenges?
When Covid-19 hit we realised that we needed to do more to enable employers to support their employees.
We designed, built, tested and launched a completely new service called “Healthy Minds” in two weeks. Our aim was to provide support to two classes of users. Firstly, we wanted to prevent users with good mental health from starting to get a bit shaky. Secondly, we wanted to prevent users who were naturally a bit anxious or prone to getting down from spiralling into clinical anxiety or depression.
Of course, we also saw the staggering challenges that new and expectant parents were facing in the crisis. We knew that we could do so much more so we applied to the Techforce19 challenge. When we found out that we were one of the 18 winners it was game on.
Can you tell us more about how you’ve deployed your technology as part of the TechForce19 challenge?
We expanded our product set significantly during TechForce19. We delivered a new mobile app. We introduced six new service lines and integrated our website, our booking systems, survey tools, video conferencing, the works. We went from finding out that we had won the competition to go-live within 11 days. I’d never worked as hard in my life.
We received 10,000 applications from parents who wanted to participate on the trial. At one point we received 2,000 applications within a one hour period. We on-boarded over 1,000 of the successful applicants within 24 hours. During the two-week trial our users sent over 40,000 texts, we delivered over 300 one-to-one video calls, over 80 small group video calls and over 30 daily broadcasts (live calls with up to 100 users dialled in).
Have you learned any valuable lessons during this period of change and uncertainty?
This crazy period has reinforced something that we’d already learned: we need to move fast and iterate to stay alive. Our pre-seed funding was based on a model that simply didn’t work. It should have worked but that didn’t change the fact that unless we moved fast we would have run out of money.
There are terrifying moments when you step back and think “no matter what I throw at this, I don’t think my efforts will move the needle”. The market signal just isn’t there. At those points you need to toss your ego under the bus and try something different. In our case, we turned Peppy around with a single idea that we were able to deliver very quickly.
During the crisis, the need for this type of thinking was 10 x’d. If you can remember Monday 9th March, you’ll remember that the oil price cratered by 20% and the share markets were in freefall. That was the literally the day that our seed round went to the Investment Committee of one of our investors. Our seed round pitch was based completely on B2B corporate sales, the very corporates who were about to enter a nuclear winter. We knew that we needed to do something big so we came up with the Healthy Minds mental health product idea – referred to above – a few hours before the IC meeting. By the time of the meeting itself we had 4 corporates on the shortlist. We’ll never know if this got our seed round over the line, but we know for a fact that we weren’t going to lie down and let events take over.
Covid-19 and other periods of upheaval give the best founders a chance to stand up and be counted. It’s too early to say whether we fall into this category, but this kind of thinking has kept us alive.
Advice for GovTech founders?
John Maynard Keynes’s famous quote comes to mind: “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” The mountain that GovTech founders need to climb is so much steeper than in other sectors.
How can you find product market fit without traction? And how can you get traction when the government gatekeepers have no incentive to take risks on untested ideas and startups. It’s really, really tough.
So my advice is NOT to never give up. Quite the opposite. Step back and make sure you have a realistic plan to survive long enough to prove your hypothesis.
We have a golden rule: never, ever get into a position in which our future is reliant on a single decision maker or organisation. That’s like playing Russian roulette with the future of your company.
Invest in information security as early as possible. We will be ISO27001 certified in a few weeks. We are already FSQS level 2 accredited. Infosec can stop a deal in its tracks, no matter how much your internal advocate loves you.
Working with PUBLIC and other super-connectors is a no-brainer. In our experience, third-sector partnerships are also overlooked. They can give you a lot of early credibility, and they can move faster than large institutions. Now more than ever the third-sector needs to innovate to survive so the timing is very good.
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