The story of mental health startup Aura Health is a story of brothers.
Daniel and Steve Lee immigrated to the United States from Korea when they were young boys. Both of their parents were doctors who separated and eventually divorced during the process of coming to the States. The Lees’ father would abandon them and their entire family, which had a profound traumatic effect on their single mother. After watching her struggle with depression following the divorce, the Lee boys vowed never to allow anyone to suffer alone in their mental health like their mom did.
“That’s why we founded Aura Health,” Daniel said to me in an interview with Steve this week conducted via videoconference.
At a high level, Aura Health essentially is a therapist’s office in your pocket. The app, available on iOS and Android, is hailed on the company’s website as “your all-in-one app for mindfulness and wellbeing” that promises to help “transform your wellbeing, sleep, and life.” Aura Health boasts over 7 million members, leveraging artificial intelligence to deliver personalized recommendations to users on how best to approach healing. Additionally, Aura claims members have spent more than 100 million minutes in meditation and listening to coaching experts. There are over 13,000 wellness tracks in Aura’s library.
Steve told me he and his brother “took a hard look” at the mental health industry when they were getting Aura off the ground. Steve said one of the things that stuck out to them is the sheer expense involved in obtaining therapy. Of the “billons” of people who “probably” would benefit from some sort of mental healthcare, only 50 million of those actually receive help. “We thought we there has to be a better way for anyone in the world to take care of their mental health,” he said.
There’s no shortage of like-minded mental wellness apps on the App Store and the Google Play Store, but none have the coaching functionality of Aura. The team has recruited coaches and therapists from all over the world to lend their expertise (and their voices) towards sessions designed to help guide people on their respective journeys to better mental health. In addition to audio content, Aura users are able to schedule one-on-one sessions with their favorite experts. Topics include hypnotherapy, occupational therapy, relationships, yoga, and more.
When asked about Aura’s ties to disability and technology, Steve said a big problem often is literal accessibility. Therapy is an expensive proposition, and not everyone who should get care can afford to pay for it. The beauty of Aura, Steve told me, is “anyone with a with a mobile phone” has the ability to access the knowledge of the aforementioned cadre of experts. Another thing that makes Aura special is the algorithms that power its recommendations. Steve said they took inspiration from the playbooks of companies like Netflix and Spotify, whose widely-renowned recommendation engines exist to make watching or listening to content a more relevant, pleasurable experience for costumers.
From the coach point of view, Daniel added the idea behind it was to give them a platform atop of which they could augment what they do offline clinical settings and translate it to the internet. Many of them were already looking to for ways to do this, so Aura is a natural extension for their aspirations. Daniel said Aura was built partly with this in mind; they wanted these experts to have a place in which they should share their knowledge and diverse outlooks on life with the wider world.
I’ve gone on the record many times in this space to say mental health struggles can be as disabling as any physical condition. It’s an incredibly poignant topic for me, one close to my heart as I’ve spent my entire life battling mental health episodes with some combination of therapy and medication. Both Daniel and Steve shared sentiments about the stigmas of mental health slowly but surely being ripped away, particularly amidst the backdrop of the pandemic. For his part, Steve said he feels, culturally speaking, “people are being much more open” and proactive in acknowledging mental health for the legitimate health concern it is. “I believe that this [mental health awareness] is really a lifelong journey,” he said. “Personally, I have been working on it every single day myself.”
Daniel seconded his brother, saying “we truly want to change how the world takes care of themselves through these cultural changes by providing all the knowledge our coaches and therapists provide.”
Feedback-wise, Aura has proven extremely popular with users. Daniel said one of the most common pieces of feedback they get is how awesome it is that Aura is an all-inclusive entity. Everything someone could possibly need or want is only a few taps away. The personalized recommendations are also highly appreciated. Daniel even noted the company has heard from people who say they were able to wean themselves off sleeping pills, as well as how Aura has changed the relationships with their spouses and their families for their better. “We get these kinds of emails every single day from our members,” he said.
One high-profile fan of Aura is famed Olympic gold medalist diver Greg Louganis, who told me in an exclusive interview earlier this week via videoconference that mental health is something that’s “really is very important to me.” He called himself “innately shy,” which he attributed to as incongruent for someone who competed in his first Olympics as a 16-year-old adolescent. Being an athlete at arguably the highest level of sport in the Olympics takes a toll on one’s mental health because of the pressure to win big. Louganis described the immense pressure to win essentially being gold or bust. There are no points for second place.
“If you think about it, if you get the gold medal at the Olympics, that’s what’s expected,” he said of the stratospheric expectations as an Olympian. “If you’re the silver medalist, then you’re just short. You’re the first loser. Then if you’re bronze medalist, chances are you’re probably grateful that you even had something to bring home.”
Emotions run the gamut from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows during competition, Louganis told me. There are a lot of eyes watching and a lot of pressure bearing down, and he was candid in telling me, being a silver medalist, there were times early on in his career as an Olympian that “it didn’t stop me from trying to commit suicide.”
Compounding the problem, he said, was in the 1970s and ‘80s, you were taught to be tough and not show any sort of weakness. Even today, with mental health awareness being seen more receptively than ever before, a suck-it-up-soldier mentality lingers and allows stigmas to remain. Like Steve, Louganis notices how attitudes have shifted and society is increasingly becoming more open-minded about addressing mental health problems. That’s precisely why, he explained, he’s such a huge fan of Aura. Its very existence means it’s a tool with which people can easily get help, on their terms. “[Mental health] is something that I’ve had to, you know, address in my life,” Louganis said. “To have that support, and those tools, is so vitally important. To be able to share those things that work for each individual, whether it’s breathing exercises, whether it’s relaxation, whether it’s visualization, or meditation. [It’s great] to have all of these tools at our disposal to be able to be be our best selves.”
Louganis was introduced to Aura by his manager, who evangelized it and encouraged him to try it out. He appreciates all the guided meditation sessions and the breathing exercises, adding he loves the notifications from Aura alerting him to things that may be in his wheelhouse. “It always turns out to be exactly what I needed that day,” he said.
Above all, what Louganis most appreciates about Aura is how, like the best camera, it’s always with you on your phone. He reiterated Daniel and Steve’s comments that Aura can be accessible to people for whom it’s impossible or difficult to get to a physical therapist’s office or pay for treatment. These are not trivial considerations, especially emotionally so because the all-digital nature of Aura means people can practice skills at their leisure, when they need help. For himself, Louganis is a fan of the guided meditations and other visualizations. He is deeply appreciative of how Aura keeps things from getting stale, saying the freshness of the recommendations “really tap into that energy of health and wellness and peace and joy.” Louganis said he regularly talks about Aura with the athletes he works with in an effort to promote mindfulness and calm in high-pressure situations like the ones he competed in many moons ago.
He continued: “I’m grateful for Aura allowing me to have a platform [that helps with the] work that I do: the breathing work, the relaxation, visualization, and teaching those things and finding your rhythm.”
As to the future, Daniel and Steve are optimistic. Daniel was succinct in his hopes and dreams for the future, telling me Aura exists to “really help anyone on this planet find peace.” Moreover, he said the team aspires to “provide the personalized support for everything related to mental wellness in a way that truly meets them where they are [and] truly makes mental wellness support accessible to everyone in the world.”
Steve concurred. “We want to become the main ecosystem for anything related to mental wellness. We started with meditation and mental wellness content and sleep content, and we’re now expanding to coaching and live experiences all within our application,” he said of his own expectations for Aura. “I believe there’s really no limit to what we can do to provide people who need it help with their mental wellbeing, and we want to be that primary destination for anyone who feels alone.”
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