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Opening up: putting founders’ mental well-being front and centre

14 August 2019


As well as being a Partner at Octopus Ventures, and heading up its portfolio management strategy, Luke Hakes sits within the Future of Health investment team, helping identify and invest in the next generation of companies that will revolutionise the health landscape. Luke believes it is time that mental health was treated on a par with physical health.

If an entrepreneur breaks an ankle, it gets treated, they return to work, life moves on. Stress fractures in mental health, however, aren’t always seen in such simple terms. The stigma and taboo that has traditionally surrounded mental health is shifting, but has the news reached the boardroom?

Performance anxiety

Building a world-changing company is a stressful business. Anyone who’s done it knows it’s a life-changing experience. Challenges come at you on a daily basis. That’s why only the very few dare to tread this most difficult of paths. The personal investment of time, assets, relationships, emotion and identity is huge.

To succeed, entrepreneurs must consistently deliver levels of performance matched only by world-class athletes. So, the fact – and it is a fact – that these high performance ‘mental athletes’, can suffer injury much like their sporting counterparts, should be no surprise. In the entrepreneur’s case, rather than a pulled hamstring or torn ligament, those injuries may affect their mental well-being.

Thus, it was with a degree of horror (but not surprise) that I recently saw an investor document stating that the board had the right to remove a CEO should they display signs of mental illness. Replace the word ‘mental’ with ‘physical’ and the prejudice is clear. This was an outdated clause dealing with an outdated view of the real world.

How can Octopus Ventures help?

Fortunately, a more realistic attitude to mental health is a win-win outcome for all stakeholders. Any world-class athlete will have a cohort of experts alongside them to ensure they perform at the highest level: coaches to improve technique; dieticians to support nutrition and physios to deal with the injury.

Why should business be any different? As we see it, entrepreneurs’ natural talent and vision can only benefit from the right kind of support.

As the taboos surrounding mental health have shifted, the resources to tackle them have multiplied. So how can we, as people-centric investors, help our founders and their teams?

At Octopus we’re developing a bank of people resources. They range from the practical – CEO coaches, focusing on performance and leadership – to the more nuanced, psychologically-focused professionals, trained to spot the signs of stress before they become a problem.

As our Operating Partner John Hamm, has said, the attitude has shifted from, “you have a coach… what’s wrong with you?” to “you don’t have a coach… what’s wrong with you?” This open attitude – that asking for help is a strength rather than a weakness – is one that we embrace wholeheartedly.

Investment opportunities

As VCs, we can also have an impact on this issue by investing in the companies that are creating the change itself. Big Health, one of our portfolio companies, is now distributing its insomnia and anxiety digital therapeutic to a potential market of 90 million in the US through the same reimbursement system as traditional drugs.

This is a watershed moment, as it signals the tacit acceptance of mental health into the mainstream.

Companies are continuing to make in-roads into female health issues and taboo areas like men’s erectile dysfunction (ED). Hims in the U.S., has chosen to tackle ED by providing more accessibility to medicines, but that only addresses the physical part of the problem.

The next level is to address the mental factors that often surround these sorts of issues (stress, anxiety and self-esteem) and businesses are beginning to appear in these areas. It’s an exciting time for us as investors because the emerging entrepreneurs in mental health are building companies based on genuine, deep insights and new channels of engagement.

The new approach

Nobody is saying these conversations are easy. Just stating that we’re comfortable with the issues caused by the stress of building a business is not enough. We need to proactively give people the license to include the topic of mental health upfront in our daily interactions.

Today, the Octopus Ventures position is clear: the well-being of our investments is inextricably tied to the well-being of the people behind them.

In other words, we’re all in this together.