Originally published by Behavioral Health Business on February 6, 2023
GV, previously Google Ventures, has invested $28.1 million in serious mental illness-focused startup firsthand.
New York-based firsthand is trying to forge trust with patients with serious mental illness (SMI) while boosting the population’s engagement with the health care system and community resources.
According to the CDC, only 64.5% of adults with SMI received mental health treatment in the past year.
firsthand uses a peer-support model to help patients with SMI access care. All its peer-support specialists, called firsthand guides, have lived experience with SMI and are trained to engage with a patient at home.
That home could be a shelter, church or private residence, according to the company.
“Sometimes [guides] have to ask neighbors where [patients] are, and it can take several phone calls or visits,” Dr. Joe Parks, chief medical officer at firsthand, told Behavioral Health Business. “And when they meet [the patient], they say, ‘We are with this company firsthand, and your insurance company asked us to help out people that seem to be having trouble and are struggling. We thought you might need help. What can I do for you?’”
“I think the reason that our services are welcome is we start with where the person is,” Parks continued. ”It’s all about where they are and what they need.”
firsthand also connects patients to a benefit-enrollment specialist, who can help them navigate paperwork and enroll in their eligible benefits. In addition to health insurance, this could include housing support, nutrition assistance and transit vouchers.
“The ability to approach the people that we’re trying to work with, with this amount of patience and time that we can give to each individual, is exactly what has proven to work,” Patrick Hendry, vice president of peer services at firsthand, told BHB. “But it’s not the way that traditional services are offered.”
firsthand partners with payers to help address the needs of their patients with SMI. The company is currently prioritizing the Medicaid sector, where need and health care costs are the highest, Samir Malik, CEO of firsthand, previously told BHB.
“It’s something that I think the health care service payers are ready for, and the insurers are ready for. They all know that they have populations … that their current methods don’t work on,” Parks said.” It’s gratifying to see more of them willing to try something different.”
Founded in 2021, firsthand now has contracts with three states: Tennessee, Ohio and Florida. It is currently working in several cities including Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, Tennessee, along with Jacksonville, Florida. By the end of the year, the organization will be operational in seven markets across those states.
Before this new investment, firsthand had raised about $14.8 million in capital, according to Crunchbase. firsthand’s latest raise was first spotted by the newsletter Exits & Outcomes, with BHB later confirming the investor as GV.
The new capital is expected to help firsthand grow its reach and coverage.
“I’m excited about taking it to more people and more communities. We know we have a model that works,” Parks said. “We’ve taken from doing it in two or three places to doing it in about eight places. We want to get it nationwide, and many people need this in many communities. There’s a lot of suffering out there. We want to do our part to make a difference and reduce that suffering.”
The behavioral health industry is seeing a recent uptick in innovation in the SMI space. Other startups including Amae, Vanna and Akin have launched over the last few years to help address the needs of individuals with SMI.
Investors have also taken note. Dr. Ben Robbins, a trained psychiatrist and general partner at GV, previously told BHB that the firm was interested in companies looking to treat behavioral health patients with higher acuity.
“The community of people that are willing to take the risk of starting a company are just getting smarter and smarter,” Robbins said. “And [SMI] is an area that is complicated. You can’t have only content or only a lightweight chatbot. I don’t think that this is a space that’s really conducive to pure virtual. The combination of cognitive impairment, the social complexity, the clinical complexity – I think that pretty much has to be a hybrid model, if not fully in person.”