Cress Health co-founders Justin Kim, left, and Michael Lai.

For our Startup Spotlights, Times of Entrepreneurship scouted the most successful startups that spun out of top university competitions and programs. The impact of such awards can be many years in the making, especially in the DeepTech space.

Cress Health 

Mental Health for All

Providence, Rhode Island

Interviewee: Justin Kim, co-founder

Which university challenge did you win and when?

We won the National Grand Prize Winner, from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) “Think like an Entrepreneur” Competition for $10,000, 2nd place at the Northwell Health Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge ($18,000), 1st place at the Long Island Business Plan Competition ($1,500), 3rd place at the Hofstra Digital Remedy Venture Challenge ($8,500). We were also finalists for the 2019 Brown Venture Prize competition, and part of the 2020 Brown Breakthrough Lab Cohort.

What is your elevator pitch? Has it changed much since you started?

Cress Health is a digital technology company that focuses on mental health. It was founded with the mission to destigmatize mental health and democratize access to mental wellness resources so everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic status gets the support they need to live the happy and fulfilling life that they deserve. We do this by developing digital technologies such as the ​Callie App​, the world’s first AI-driven personal wellness companion, and the Cress App​, a wellness platform that delivers chat-based peer support. Although our mission has always been the same, our focus has shifted during COVID-19 to focus on the mental wellness of young adults and healthcare workers, two populations whose mental health was disproportionately affected by the emotional stressors of the pandemic. 

How much have you raised so far and how many employees do you currently have?

We have not officially raised any venture funding and have yet to raise a seed round. We plan on doing so sometime in the summer. We have 3 employees currently working on the startup. 

What should we know about you?

Our founding team, Michael Lai (Hofstra ‘20) and Justin Kim (Brown ‘21) is diversely talented and impact-driven. Not only are we focused on creating a sustainable enterprise, but we’re trying to make the world a better place through our work. In line with this, we’ve started Cress Cares, Cress Health’s non-profit arm. It is working with the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) and JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) as well as Step up for Kakuma (local community organization) to deliver the Cress app and cost-free mental wellness educational resources to the Kakuma refugee camp (in northwest Kenya). We are also working with community partners in Liberia to deliver mental health educational resources to women affected by sexual and gender based violence, and in Kenya to deliver mental health educational resources to youth in Nairobi.
After we learned about the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut in Lebanon in August 2020, we began working with a non-profit organization (Uplift Beirut) to deliver the Cress app to healthcare workers in the Red Cross and local physicians who responded to the crisis. We were motivated to respond to this crisis because a lot of people were focusing on the PTSD experienced by the general public, but few people were focusing on the long term psychological trauma imposed on the healthcare workers who saw and worked through the unimaginable that night. We tried our best to do whatever we could to make a difference and help those in need.

We also have been selected as a Fast Company 2020 World Changing Idea and a 25 under 25 in Rhode Island by Rhode Island Inno.

What are you looking for?

We’re currently looking to build awareness around the release of our Callie App so that we can help as many individuals self-care as we can: ​​.

Why should someone invest in you?

We have a diversely talented founding and product development (Yusuf Karim, Brown ‘22) team, in addition to a widely accomplished advisory board:  Sina Y. Rabbany, PhD: Dean and Distinguished Professor, Hofstra University School of Engineering and Applied Science,  Jonathan Avery, MD: Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Weill Cornell Medical College,  Richard I. Kolsky, PhD: Adjunct Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Serena McCalla, PhD: Founder and CEO, iResearch Corporation, and Nicholas M. Grumbach, MD: Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
Our technology is patent-pending. ​We have a provisional patent for our product.

Is there a clear evidence of success you would like to share?

During COVID-19, we’ve pivoted to focus on two major market needs: young adult mental wellness and healthcare worker mental wellness. We heard devastating stories of the effects of the pandemic on the mental and emotional health on our peers, and how the current digital resources available (i.e. Headspace, Calm, Talkspace, Reflectly, etc.) just weren’t sufficient.

The Callie app has three major components:

• A daily journal that asks questions about how you feel and personalized questions about your lifestyle. For example, if you’re a prolific runner, it might ask you if you’ve ran that day and if so, how many miles.

• Analytics that tell you how your emotional health metrics such as stress and motivation are changing over time.

• A virtual companion that crafts a personalized mental wellness regimen based on your unique lifestyle and interests. For example, if it notices from your journaling entries that you’re more stressed when you skip your morning run, it’ll include running as part of your regimen and send you reminders/motivational content to start your day. It also suggests new wellness techniques for you to try over time (i.e. aromatherapy) based on your previous preferences.

Already we’ve reached thousands of young adults across the nation through our campus representative program (​Cress Discover​) which empowers college students to become mental health advocates on campus and in their local communities.

We also wanted to make as large of an impact as we could on this pandemic by getting our app out as a resource to as many healthcare workers as possible. We’ve partnered with AMITA Health, one of the largest hospital systems in the Midwest, with 19 hospitals and over 200 outpatient centers in the Chicago area to serve their healthcare workers with the Cress App. We’ll also be rolling out to healthcare workers in Lifespan Health and the Rhode Island Medical Society and we’re actively in conversation with other healthcare organizations about potential partnerships.

What is the best and worst advice you have received so far?

We’re fortunate to have amazing mentors such as Stacey Sikes, Sharon Goldsmith, Dr. Sina Rabbany, Dr. Rick Kolsky, Liz Malone, and Hamzah Ansari. The best advice we’ve received so far came from our mentors, in which we were encouraged to choose the path for our lives that would lead us to regret the least later on in our lives. This advice motivated us to chase our passions and begin our entrepreneurial venture. The worst advice was when someone  told us that you can’t make a meaningful impact until your mid-30’s after you’ve completed a degree and amassed relevant professional experience. But we don’t think that’s true at all.

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