Lounging on the office couch or working together at a long table, workers at Thrive 4-7 tapped away at laptops while the afternoon sun brightened up the colorful, airy office.
The laidback atmosphere may be typical of other tech firms, but this startup, which focuses on the intersection of technology and mental health, has unique origins. It’s founded by a scientist and a veteran of the health care system.
What’s even more unusual is that the company was co-founded by women, a rarity in the male-dominated worlds of science and technology.
“There’s traditionally not many women who lead companies, particularly startup companies,” said CEO Connie Mester, the health care veteran, who co-founded the company in 2013 with Kelly Earp, the company’s chief science officer.
“I’ve always been used to being on presentations or around the board table as the only female, and it’s a whole different level as a CEO,” Mester said.
They’re using their combined experiences, both professionally and as women, to shine a light on mental health issues. This month, they hope to break into the mental health app market by releasing an app called Mevii. They hope it helps remove some of the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
“There’s a lot to do, and we can’t do it fast enough,” said Earp a few weeks before the app’s release.
Studies show women-led firms are less likely to receive funding from venture capitalists, but Thrive 4-7 has received funding and positive attention in the industry.
The company is part of North Carolina’s Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, giving Mester and her team ties to the largest alternative investment firm in the world.
The Center for Connected Health, a Harvard-affiliated group, named Thrive 4-7 a finalist in its 2014 Innovators Challenge. Mester recently spoke in Boston at the group’s annual symposium. She said the interest she received after her speech shows there’s promise for Mevii.
‘My health is my choice’
Mevii, which is targeted specifically to women and developed with female users in mind, combines features such as motivational quotes and tips on how to improve their mental and physical health.
“It is helping (app users) think it is OK to go see a therapist,” Mester said. “It’s unfortunate that mental health care is so stigmatized. Everyone should have a doctor for their head, just like they have a primary care physician.”
Before getting into the tech world, Mester worked for the Centers for Disease Control and various health insurance companies. In both sectors, she said, the primary focus was on how hospitals and doctors could treat patients, with little attention paid to how people can help themselves.
“And with what we’re creating it’s really ... a mind-shift, or transition, that ‘My health is my choice, and the decisions I make every day,’ ” Mester said.
The development and buildup to the app’s release has meant busy days at the company’s Perimeter Park office.
“We sleep about an hour a day,” Mester says, pausing before adding, “I’m joking. A little. I mean, we’re at startup pace, and I imagine it’s similar for any other startup.”
The company released a white paper in advance of the app launch, a nine-page summary of the science and statistics behind mental disorders and their effects on society. The report cited research showing that women are 70 percent more likely than than men to experience depression, and 60 percent more likely to experience anxiety.
Mester said it’s important to note that while women are more prone to mental disorders, that doesn’t mean women are any less capable than men.
“For the longest time, women were saying ‘We’re equal, we’re no different,’ ” Mester said. “And I get that. Here I am, a CEO and all that. But at the same time, women are different than men.”
People of both genders, she said, should realize that being different doesn’t equate to being better or worse.
“We are not all one-size-fits-all,” Mester said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Driven by ideals
Despite the female-centric message and leadership, the company employs men, too. Its managing director and market research associate are both U.S. Army Special Forces veterans.
Earp said while the company didn’t intend to hire veterans, their background – and familiarity with mental health issues – does help.
“They were really able to resonate with what we were doing,” Earp said, adding that the company may reach out more to veterans groups in the future.
Mester said whatever they do, it’s going be driven by ideals.
“I don’t really even see us a technology company. I see us more as these visionaries that identify and solve these problems,” she said.
“And technology is really just the channel it’s delivered in.”