Mental health technology start-ups must embed better research practices to succeed

A yearlong programme has underlined the fact that robust research practices are crucial in ensuring mental health technology start-ups create products aligned with the real needs of individuals. This approach better enables start-ups to build the evidence they need to secure contracts, grant funding and investment.


Led by Big Society Capital and funded by The Wellcome Trust, the programme brought together the worlds of research, social impact investment (Big Society Capital) and start-up development (Bethnal Green Ventures and Zinc). The full findings have been released in a new report: Connecting research and ventures to improve mental health: programme learning and insights

Twelve start-ups were provided with research grants between £5,000 and £40,000 to engage with researchers and users to test the impact of their products and services. The start-ups focussed on preventative digital health products for perinatal and children's mental health; employee and care-givers’ emotional wellbeing; mindful drinking and youth self-harm prevention. They also aim to combat health inequalities by addressing the needs of underserved and disadvantaged groups.

Some key insights from the programme included:

  • Timely research funding helps to shape business models and offerings by embedding rigorous research practice at critical start-up development stages, especially alongside unrestricted grant funding or investment.
  • Industry standard Randomised Controlled Trials are often ill-suited to innovative start-ups, due to their linear approach and long timeframes. However, by involving research earlier, start-ups were able to run fast testing on what they believed was working, and then adapt based on the evidence.
  • User engagement and testing, particularly with disadvantaged groups, is challenging for start-ups. By trialling new approaches including pilots and larger-scale, non-intrusive user testing embedded in the product, the start-ups were able to explore better ways of engaging with these groups.

Stephen Muers, Head of Strategy at Big Society Capital, commented:

“There is a growing need for mental health support services in the UK, and yet only 3.9% of mental health research funding goes towards prevention1. We believe there is a role for social investment in tackling some of the barriers to the adoption and scaling of innovative solutions revealed in the report, such as the prohibitive costs, complexity and time involved in generating research-based evidence.

“This is why we have chosen to partner with The Wellcome Trust on this crucial project, and why Big Society Capital has made preventative mental health one of our key areas of focus. We are interested in building on these findings and exploring the potential and suitability of social impact investing in this area. We’d welcome views and input from others.”     

Sarah Paine, Funding and Activities Advisor at The Wellcome Trust, said:

“Our collaboration with Big Society Capital, Bethnal Green Ventures and Zinc has enabled us to test new and innovative ways to approach funding and partnerships. Effective engagement is people-centred: by backing social entrepreneurs to test what works, we’ve gained fresh insights into how social enterprises can connect the public with research. This ultimately improves trust in science and leads to better research.”



The full report can be found on Big Society Capital’s website here

1 MQ, UK Mental Health Research Funding 2014-2017, p 3, bullet point 4


Big Society Capital improves the lives of people in the UK by connecting social investment to social enterprises and charities.

We know that investment can help social enterprises and charities achieve more. We believe the greatest chance to improve lives comes when investors and enterprises are both motivated by social mission.

We engage with investors, fund managers, social enterprises and charities to make it easier to use social investment. With our co-investors, we have made over £1.7bn of new capital available to organisations with a social mission, through investments into fund managers and social banks. We have a special focus on: providing homes for people in need; supporting communities to improve lives; and early action to prevent problems.


Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.

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