by Danielle LaySep 12, 2018

Today, fitness permeates many aspects of our lives and culture. From what we wear (Nike, Lululemon, Adidas) and how we socialize (Equinox, SoulCycle) to our sources of motivation (Instagram fitness influencers) and methods of transportation (Bird, Lime and the dock-less bike mafia), our habits have evolved with our understanding of how to live longer and healthier lives. For the past decade, investors have capitalized on, and fueled significant growth in, the fitness category. We believe that the movement to prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing will be a similar society-shifting phenomenon that may fundamentally change the way we live and make decisions.

There are several dimensions for both investors and entrepreneurs to consider here:

  • There is a market need for both proactive and reactive mental wellness solutions

  • Science and research proves that it works

  • Consumer interest is picking up, but the demand is under-served

  • Opportunities to innovate in this category are not limited to studios and digital content

  • Community is a highly demanded “feature"

We all know that physical wellbeing is an active and daily pursuit – proactive measures, such as eating well, sleeping well, and exercising well are equal in importance to going to the doctor in reaction to symptoms. Physical exercise, really a form of preventative healthcare, significantly reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, bone deterioration, muscle atrophy, and a long list of other serious conditions. Mental and emotional wellbeing similarly require proactivity and upkeep. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the US and mental health treatment spending has consequently increased five-fold in the past 30 years. As cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has gained traction as an important reactive measure, and companies like Woebot have scaled digital offerings to support this growing need, mindfulness practices have emerged and are gaining consumer traction as an important proactive measure.

Mindfulness practices, including meditation, boast a series of health benefits that rival that of regular physical exercise and intermittent fasting. A 2013 study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that a treatment group that went through an 8-week mindfulness training had significantly lower levels of anxiety compared to a control group. Various studies have also reproduced, under different circumstances, results indicating that meditation increases the concentration of gray matter in the brain. The increases were mostly found in regions associated with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation and self-referential processing. The list of benefits proven by research goes on: improved cognition, decreased blood cholesterol, decreased blood pressure, insomnia alleviation, increased body satisfaction, and depression prevention are amongst the many health benefits.

Just as they did with physical fitness, consumers are catching on to the need for mental wellness. A contingent of audio meditation apps, including Simple Habit (an NEA-backed company), Calm and Headspace have received strong positive reception in the past few years. There have been over 6.5 million Instagram posts tagged with #selfcare and 7.9 million with #mindfulness. Google searches for “mindfulness” and “meditation” are up by 222% and 250%, respectively, from weekly search rates 10 years ago. As of 2017, researchers estimate that 8% of U.S. adults meditate – that’s 20 million people. The numbers hint at a generation that is finding solace in millennia-old tried and true mindful practices adapted to fit the needs of their busy and digital-dependent lives.

The wave of mental training does not limit investable opportunities to meditation studios and digital content. Just as physical fitness spawned hundreds of successful and well-loved businesses in apparel, software, hardware and media, we believe that a focus on mental and emotional health will generate business opportunities across a similarly broad spectrum. Importantly, entrepreneurs in this category will need to balance both the existing needs and unanticipated wants of the consumer given the developing nature of this consumer trend.

Consumers are willing to pay a premium to feel a true sense of community, and this category is very well-suited to capitalize on this truth. The premise of wellness is to feel good and be healthy, and feeling a sense of belonging is a big part of that. The Grant Study, an 80-year longitudinal study of happiness, found that strong relationships with family, friends and communities were the most significant indicators of happiness and physical health. The success of social clubs, and social clubs that are disguised as gyms, are reflections of this. We’ve seen this story play out with several NEA portfolio companies, including goop, The Wing, and The Players’ Tribune, that have all successfully built fantastic communities that exist both digitally and offline.

As the tech world prides itself on creating products and companies that change the world, it makes sense that mental wellness should be one of the primary target categories for entrepreneurs and investors. The rate of depression for those ages 12 to 17 has risen by close to 50% in the past 10 years; the suicide rate for the same age group has risen by 70% in the same period. There seems to be no better time for us to embrace and prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing as there is a social-driven need here in addition to a market-driven one. As the space continues to evolve, here are some questions for you on the other side of this screen: how will we build wellness products for the digitally native? How will we build for the already-mindful, want-to-be-mindful, as well as the don’t-know-what-the-word-“mindful”-means audiences? How can we scale a true sense of community?