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Startup Story

Therapy in wartime. For Ukrainians under siege, Mindly makes mental health therapy accessible to all

Mindly team's business meeting in a conference room.

A mental health marketplace startup makes a rapid pivot for a national mission

Mental health care should be accessible to all Ukrainians. That’s the newfound wartime mission statement of Mindly, a Kyiv-founded startup which connects clients to licensed therapists through an end-to-end mental health platform for online therapy that offers AI-powered patient care and clinical admin automation.

“In 2021, I started Mindly, a mental health platform for online therapy. After the start of the war, we converted it to make mental health therapy accessible to all Ukrainians, even to those who currently are in dire financial conditions and can’t afford to pay for it themselves,” says Dimitri Podoliev, CEO and co-founder of Mindly. “All the money we make goes entirely to pay for therapy sessions provided to Ukrainians in need who currently can’t afford to pay for it themselves. Our goal is to provide quality therapy which yields results, not just one or two free sessions.”

With over 2,000 startups proliferating in Ukraine pre-war, the country’s tech founders have displayed self-organization under pressure. Startup leaders like Podoliev acted nimbly to pivot business models, adapt IT skills to wartime efforts, and carry out contingency plans for staff to work remotely from basements, bomb shelters, and cars.

“Since the start of war and our wartime pivot, we have more than 3,000 users and have conducted more than 1,000 sessions in the first three weeks. It’s super hard to plan for the year because now we are living day to day and maximum week to week. But by the end of the summer, we have plans to scale to 50,000 users,” adds Podoliev.

Mindly’s provision of wartime therapy at this scale is both impressive and necessary. But how could a startup marketplace for psychologists pivot to pay for thousands of therapy sessions it provides to Ukrainians who currently can’t afford to pay for it themselves?

Pivoting under fire: Podoliev’s plan to bankroll virtual mental health therapy

Podoliev announced the new wartime model on March 12, from Mindly’s satellite office in Warsaw as Poland has welcomed nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees since the war’s start. The majority of Mindly staff remain in Ukraine, making hybrid use of the startup’s Kyiv headquarters and WFH as ground conditions allow.

The global flow of donations to Mindly’s wartime therapy campaign has already funded over a thousand of sessions, which were provided free-of-charge to Ukrainians in need,” says Podoliev.

Since the start of the invasion, nearly 12 million Ukrainians have become refugees in neighboring countries or find themselves displaced within their own nation. Mindly’s new market entry into Poland can be considered one more example of Ukrainian startups trying to make the best of an unfathomable reality.

“Entering the Polish market will help us scale and to cover the financial deficit that is created because unfortunately, now many Ukrainians aren’t able to pay for mental health therapy,” adds Podoliev.

Crisis in Ukraine has empowered a network of online mental health experts

Ukrainians’ emergency need for therapy is vast. In a report on the mental health needs of Ukrainian refugees, The World Health Organization, profiled Olga, a 20-year-old medical student who recently arrived at a refugee shelter in eastern Poland, describing mental health distress typical of the millions who have fled.

So far, I have not found a way to stay calm. I feel scared all the time. People like me need mental health support because we feel completely disoriented and lost. My mother is the same – she cries, she checks the news on her phone and has no idea what will happen next. My little sister too – she doesn't want to play or engage with anyone; she just wants to go home.

Under this dire need, “the crisis in Ukraine has unleashed a network of online mental health experts.” providing innumerable acts of psychological first aid and virtual visits. And for Mindly, that also includes support for overwhelmed local therapists.

“Therapists are people too, and they are all from Ukraine and in very difficult situations, I feel it unfair to ask them to work for free. During the time of war, Mindly has committed to invest 100% of its income in mental health therapy for Ukrainians who currently can’t afford to pay for it themselves. Our goal is to maximize the number of free-of-charge therapy sessions we can provide and people we can help,” adds Podoliev.

With expansion to Warsaw, Mindly posts impressive user stats

With more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees now residing in Warsaw alone, the Polish capital and the thousands of start-ups who call the Eastern European tech hub home will likely play a large role in the post-war economic recovery of Ukraine.

On March 29, Google CEO Sundar Pichai met with Ukrainian startup leaders (including Podoliev) in Warsaw to announce the $5 million Google for Startups Ukraine Support Fund which provides equity-free cash awards and hands-on support customized to help Ukrainian entrepreneurs grow their businesses and strengthen their community. In addition, Google for Startups Campus Warsaw provides free workspace to uprooted Ukrainian startups and offices to local NGOs providing legal and psychological support to refugees.

“Google’s Poland team and Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai have been extremely supportive and helpful. We are getting tremendous support from Google and Google’s office in Warsaw, which I must say is among the main reasons we’re targeting Poland as our first foreign market,” says Podoliev who notes Mindly received $100,000 in non-dilutive cash, product support, and Google Cloud credits as part of the support fund.

In October 2021, Mindly was selected for a special cohort of Google for Startups Accelerator: Europe focused on healthcare and wellness startups on the continent. “If it wasn’t for the incredible Google for Startups Accelerator program which Mindly was fortunate to take part in at the end of 2021, Mindly would have likely not been here today,” says Podoliev. “If we can get mentors and experienced people for free, that's as good as, if not better, than just money alone.”

Before Mindly, Podoliev built a network of startup accelerators across Eastern Europe

Within 48 hours of the invasion, Podoliev helped assemble a fintech team and establish a secure site to help the Ukrainian National Bank raise over 11 million euros in financial assistance.

Assembling a global rapid response team came naturally. The son of a former Ukrainian ambassador to Finland, Podoliev was educated in Helsinki, studied engineering in Cambridge and MIT, managed private equity projects for a British investment fund, and served as the Honorary Consul of Uruguay in Kiev to foster bilateral business relations to the South American country before co-founding iHUB in 2012.

A profile of Podoliev’s tech networking efforts, published just weeks before the war’s start, described iHub as one of the largest Eastern European startup incubators, helping entrepreneurs find investors and realize projects across tech hub offices in Ukraine and Moldova.

Yet Mindly’s 2021 launch (at the iHUB HQ in Kyiv) stunned his colleagues. What did this engineer and investor see in mental health? And how would Ukrainians take to Mindly? Seeking out mental healthcare remains stigmatized due both to cultural norms and the country’s charged geopolitical history.

Mapping the future of mental healthcare in Ukraine.

As a founder, Podoliev codes and specializes in hybrid mobile app development, deep neural networks, machine learning, and the future of AI. While not a mental health specialist himself, Podoliev is scaling Mindy to incorporate patient health-optimizing AI and ML features that are poised to transform mental healthcare in the next few years.

“We are currently building our first AI features,” says Podoliev. “Because AI is the only way we can make mental health therapy truly accessible to all. With the shortage of qualified therapists, and the relatively high expenses of therapy sessions, AI can help with many cases and support the work of therapists in so many ways.”

But when Mindly was founded, Ukraine was still a peacetime country, where seeking mental health assistance remained stigmatized. A Yale University study published last year traced Ukrainians’ lack of trust in the psychiatric system to the country’s past Soviet rule, when psychology was frequently deployed as a politically repressive tool. A recent report assessing Ukraine’s mental health situation before the war, found that mental health disorders are the country’s second leading cause of disability, affecting up to 30 percent of the population. In addition, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only increased the need for virtual mental health resources.

If all this sounds like a demanding situation in which to launch an AI-based mental health marketplace you would be correct. But these global assessments of Ukraine’s collective mental health also reveal a viable path forward for Mindly: pent-up consumer demand for discreet mental health treatment and a portal for access that reduces the social shame around seeking help. While no playbook exists for scaling during wartime, Podoliev remains optimistic about the role his startup can play in the country’s recovery, both economically and psychologically.

“Obviously we still need financial support, because everything we make, we put it towards maximizing free-of-charge therapy sessions. Currently, that is our main goal. We need media and PR support as well, the more people we can reach the better,” says Podoliev. “Mindly is now in a position to help hundreds of thousands Ukrainians in need, and have a real positive macro impact on the Ukrainian economy and nation as a whole as we win this war and begin to recover and rebuild our country.”

Learn more about Mindly