Meet the 26-year-old whose mental health app serves 3 million globally

Theodoric Chew is reshaping the delivery of mental healthcare with Intellect, Asia’s largest and fastest-growing mental health startup.

By SGN | 7 Oct 2022

Since his teens, Theo has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Therapy proved to be of great help, but he noticed how social stigma and costly treatments were common barriers for many people seeking care.

After four years at Raffles Institution, his path sharply diverged from those of his classmates as they went on to sit their A Levels and apply to top colleges.

“I chose not to go to university,” he says. “I wanted to gain real operating experience, working with startups and companies, eventually leading to building something of my own.”

With his mind set on exploring tech that benefits the masses, he launched a self-help content platform, Existgreat, when he was 18. Two years later, it was acquired by a group of American entrepreneurs for a modest sum.

His career then progressed at full tilt. At 21, he was head of content marketing at Voyagin, a Rakuten-owned travel marketplace. At 22, he became global digital lead at the startup accelerator Entrepreneur First. But after acquiring all this work experience, Theo had an idea for a new venture.

A timely debut during the pandemic

This time, it was to solve a problem close to his heart: building an app that would widen access to mental healthcare for users and employees across Asia. Though becoming a founder wasn’t unusual, his chosen domain back then was considered rather unconventional. 

“Early on, I was always asked why I didn’t venture into a more established tech sector instead,” he says. “Mental health tech required us to build awareness before we could scale up.”

As it turned out, Theo’s startup Intellect, founded in 2019, became a forerunner of a sector that would experience tremendous growth over the next couple of years. The app entered beta release in April 2020, just as the COVID-19 outbreak was triggering mental issues resulting from social isolation, fear of the disease, and loss of income or loved ones. 

Futhermore, access to mental health services was disrupted by lockdowns, prompting downloads of mental wellness apps to skyrocket. According to one report, the global market for such apps rose in value by 54.6% between 2019 and 2021.

The Intellect app was launched in 2020, just as COVID-19 was triggering mental health issues around the world.

Balancing technology with human touch

But in an increasingly crowded landscape, how does Intellect stand out from other mental health apps? One core tenet that underpins the strength of their product is the balance between leveraging the power of tech and delivering the human touch.

Being a digital platform has enabled Intellect to scale and dramatically expand its reach. Its psychometric tests swiftly identify user needs, and self-guided programmes on topics such as anxiety, self-esteem and relationships allow users to build skills for mental resilience at their own pace and convenience, with analytics tracking their progress and wellbeing. 

At the same time, the app uses technology to connect individuals to human assistance. This includes support for those in immediate distress and matching each user – through AI – with a coach or therapist that can best serve them. 

“We know that the human touch is essential in the mental health journey,” Theo says, which is also why the newly opened Singapore office is outfitted with therapy rooms for in-person sessions. 

In the corporate context, Intellect has become a way for companies to displace outdated mental health programmes. “Traditional employee assistance programs (EAPs) are essentially helplines with many gaps – low utilisation, privacy concerns, weak triaging, limited to no client success,” Theo explains, “whereas Intellect takes a more proactive and accessible approach to emotional wellbeing.”

Theo speaking at the inaugural Cities of the Future conference in 2021.

Asia’s fastest-growing mental health app

Having raised $23 million in Series A funding, Intellect is backed by leading investors such as Insignia Ventures Partners, Tiger Global and Y Combinator, and is fast expanding its presence across Asia and the world, most recently in Japan. The app is currently available in 14 languages, with coaches and counsellors in 20 countries supporting 3 million users globally.

“We provide culturally relatable care in each region, with examples and scenarios that work for the local context,” Theo notes. “Someone struggling with their mental health in Hong Kong or Vietnam can have very different triggers and environments compared to someone based in Singapore.” 

Companies that adopt Intellect have seen significant positive results: higher utilisation rates, lower turnover, and less absenteeism. 

After a three-month trial run at Foodpanda, 98% of employees asked for the app to be included in the company’s mental health benefits. At Schroders, close to 30% of employees became active users within two months, far higher than the average EAP engagement rate of 1 to 2%.

Theo with Ingo Laubender, Head of People at Foodpanda – one of Intellect’s clients.

Mental wellbeing must be a global priority

Reflecting on this year’s World Mental Health Day theme of ‘Making Mental Health and Wellbeing for All a Global Priority’, Theo says, “The mental wellbeing of employees is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s essential in the modern workplace.” 

He points out that mental health services have shown a positive return on investment (ROI), become key in hiring and retaining talent, and helped companies recognise employees as being part of a valued, thriving team. 

“In our post-COVID world, mental health awareness has grown rapidly, but we still have a long way to go,” he adds. “In certain parts of Asia, we’re seeing a leap in crisis rates, and yet there’s not enough mental healthcare in place. 

“In time, I believe it’ll become a staple in our lives – both as a direct employee benefit and accessible to all end users in need.”

About Theo

Theo is the co-founder and CEO of Intellect, Asia’s largest and fastest-growing mental health startup, which supports leading employers and more than 3 million users globally. 

Connect with him here.

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