Stories > Therapeutic Tech

2023 • Issue 2

Therapeutic Tech

Singapore start-up Intellect aims to change the way the world perceives and accesses mental health services through its digital app.




ne common way entrepreneurs make their first bucket of gold is by placing bets on the “next big thing” in society. But for Singaporean Theodoric Chew, the motivation to create Intellect, a start-up that provides businesses with mental health and self-care services, had nothing to do with intuition or clairvoyance. Because mental health has always been a big thing for him.

Overwhelmed by pressure to perform well in his studies, Chew suffered his first anxiety attack when he was just 16. “My heart rate suddenly spiked. I was breathing heavily. I felt as if the room was crumbling,” recalls the 27-year-old. But the initial shock soon morphed into curiosity, and true to the digitally savvy nature of his generation, he turned to the Internet for answers.

Realising that he might have had an anxiety attack, he approached his parents and requested for therapy.

Looking back at this fateful incident, he feels a mixture of emotions. The first is gratitude towards his parents, who provided timely medical intervention. The second is a slight sense of disbelief that the barriers to mental healthcare still exist.

“The reality is that the mental healthcare system, to me at least, has not really changed over the past few decades,” he says. “The cost is still prohibitive for many, and there aren’t enough mental health institutions and professionals.”

Singaporean Theodoric Chew founded Intellect to provide professional online consultations for those facing mental health problems.

Forced to drop out of school due to his mental health issues, Chew started his entrepreneurial journey early by dabbling in dropshipping and advertising arbitrage, and creating a self-help platform called Existgreat that was eventually acquired.

He also has start-up experience under his belt, having helmed marketing efforts at a couple of tech-driven ones. As such, he does not shy away from tackling problems, and this explains why Intellect was founded to deal with not just one but all of the above-mentioned barriers to mental health treatment across the Asia-Pacific.

Among the challenges he faced at the early stages include convincing investors that mental healthcare was going to be the next big thing. However, there was a plethora of data that clearly paints mental health disorders as a silent pandemic that is sweeping the world.

Another challenge was his age. “Some investors did not think that I could run a company well. But I used this to my advantage — my age and not being from this field meant I have a fresh perspective on how to disrupt the industry,” he says.

Some professionals the start-up attempted to collaborate with also expressed skepticism about the viability of online consultations, he recalls. But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic quickly forced a mindset shift. “People realised that online consultations can be just as effective,” he says.

“The availability of online consultations lowers the barrier significantly for individuals who are new to and possibly afraid of therapy.”

Theodoric Chew, founder, Intellect

“The availability of online consultations lowers the barrier significantly for individuals who are new to and possibly afraid of therapy. Through an online virtual consultation, they can access the session from anywhere, avoiding the need to commute to a clinic. They can also choose the medium — video call or just a voice call enabled to protect their confidentiality.”

Intellect’s eponymous app allows users to book online appointments with mental healthcare professionals in their region, as well as providing useful tips.

Today, just three-and-a-half years after it was founded, the start-up has raised a staggering $30 million in funding and serves some three million members. It also counts major companies such as Dell, Singtel, Shell and McDonald’s as its clients.

The firm’s current business approach is tailored towards employees of corporations. Since all mental health treatment expenses for employees are covered by the medical insurance the company provides, it completely removes the cost barrier. Intellect’s corporate offerings include crisis hotlines, online consultations with medical professionals, self-care services and life coaching lessons, all of which can be accessed through its eponymous app.

To tackle the stigma surrounding mental health treatment, Intellect has been holding the Mental Health Festival Asia every year since 2021, bringing together high-profile individuals like ministers, CEOs, celebrities and national athletes who share about their own struggles with mental health issues. The start-up also works with the Ministry of Health’s Office for Healthcare Transformation to launch an initiative that aims to raise awareness among the youth.

In terms of addressing the lack of medical professionals and long waiting times for treatment, the app serves as a force multiplier because, by virtue of its digital nature, it provides access to psychologists and psychiatrists from around the world. Furthermore, online consultations are discreet.

One of Intellect’s key selling points is the localised nature of its content and services. The need to create solutions that take into account cultural nuances, says Chew, is down to the simple fact that people in different countries face challenges that are often unique to their society.

He posits that someone based in rural Indonesia would face different mental health struggles compared to one in New York. As such, Intellect connects users to only psychologists or psychiatrists from their region to ensure that contextual understanding is maintained. Its cognitive behavioural therapy-based modules are also tweaked to suit audiences.

He explains that a module on stress management for a Singapore user would focus more on addressing work and financial stress. This focus on localisation has naturally allowed him to gain new insights into cultures. He shares that Japan, for instance, has a unique “mental health spectrum” compared to other nations.

“For many people around the world, the mental health spectrum has critically unwell on one end and peak happiness on the other. What I have found is that many Japanese do not wish to be the happiest they can be. Rather, they strive to attain inner peace,” he says. “On the other hand, it is common to find Singaporeans saying that their ultimate goal is to be successful in life — it is generally defined in terms of academic and professional excellence.”

Another thing he learnt is that though young people in places like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong are becoming more vocal about their mental health struggles, in Japan, the change in attitude is progressing slowly and more needs to be done in making mental health-related topics easier to broach.

“I believe a person’s mental health is at the root of everything they experience and act on in life. How one feels emotionally affects how one thinks and acts.”

Theodoric Chew, founder, Intellect

“I believe a person’s mental health is at the root of everything they experience and act on in life. How one feels emotionally affects how one thinks and acts,” he says. “Caring for mental health should not be any different from caring for physical health.”

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