Clicking into Zoom, my faithful companion over the last few weeks, I was struck yet again by the strangeness of the situation we all find ourselves in. It has not escaped anyone’s attention that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. And while the majority of most people’s feeds and conversations are consumed by Covid-19, there has also been an added awareness around our mental health. As we upend our entire routines, stay home and reduce our social interactions, it can be difficult and destabilising for many. It seemed fitting, then, to be speaking to Aimee-Louise Carton, Trinity graduate and co-founder of the mental wellness app, KeepAppy.
What is KeepAppy?
Carton describes KeepAppy as “a gym for mental health” which “provides you with a collection of tools, just like a gym would a collection of equipment.” The app has a multitude of features that allow the user to tailor their own experience. It is free to download and use, but for unlimited access a subscription is necessary. A user can keep track of their daily vitals by noting how much they sleep, drink, and spend time with friends and family. There is a gratitude journal, and a mindfulness exercise as well as a medicine and period tracker. There is also the added feature of a virtual pet dog to take care of. The purpose behind the gym analogy is that “We all learn not to eat too much McDonalds, to not eat salt, not eat sugar, to exercise… but at no point do we ever really learn about mental health.” Carton underscores that “one in four people may have a mental illness, but all of us have mental health.” The app currently has 15,000 downloads and is used in 86 countries. Their idea is that 21% of Europeans go to the gym regularly to look after their physical health, and Carton argues that the same practice should be afforded to their mental health.
The journey to KeepAppy
For Carton, the journey to KeepAppy has been a personal and difficult one. After nearly taking her own life, Carton was frustrated by the approach and underfunding of mental health services in Ireland. She advocated for improvements by emailing the then-Health Minister every week for 52 weeks: “I’m fairly sure his secretary blocked me.” The psychiatric ward in Beaumont Hospital was a prefab, a temporary building which “was crumbling, there was mould on the walls.” From this frustration, KeepAppy was born. Despite a growing and positive conversation on mental health in recent years in Ireland, we still have the third-lowest number of beds per head of the population in psychiatric wards in the European Union, and Mental Health Reform has repeatedly called for reforms, and the enacting of any reforms, of the Mental Health Act, 2001.
“I have been told that my co-founder should be the face of the company just because he’s a boy and is more likely to get investments”
As an undergraduate, Carton studied Sociology in Trinity before pursuing a Masters in Political Science and came back to Trinity in 2019 to study a Masters in Entrepreneurship. Before College, Carton had been involved in Amnesty International and while in Trinity she was involved in SUAS and Jailbreak. Chatting about her time at Trinity, she clearly had fond memories: “I miss the environment of Trinity… There is such an atmosphere of curiosity, and revolution and willingness to evoke change”. It was while studying for her Masters in Trinity that Carton met KeepAppy’s other co-founder, Will Ben Sims. They were not immediately destined for success, as Carton readily admitted, “My first impression of Will Ben was that I hated him… He thought he was the shit and he then looked at me and saw me as this social justice warrior who literally would not shut up about mental health.” They were repeatedly put in class projects together, though, and projects they worked on proved to be successful. They realised that their “skills really complemented one another.” Carton added, “We were coworkers before we were friends!” Sims also shares Carton’s personal background to the app: his uncle died of suicide, so he understands the importance of caring for mental health. In my conversation with Carton, it is evident that KeepAppy is more than a chance to achieve success in business and a passionate act to make a real change. And such a personal project has its burdens: “I really, really struggle to seperate myself from KeepAppy, and as a result, I have been burnt out.”
Carton distinguishes between an Irish understanding of a social enterprise (a charity) and the model of a B-corp which is, as Carton describes it, that they “match profit and impact on the same level”. While most businesses are profit driven, Carton is as concerned with the impact which KeepAppy has; this is reflected in their one-for-one model. The idea is that for every person that purchases a subscription service on KeepAppy, another person gets it for free. KeepAppy have partnered with help lines and youth organisations, and these organisations choose the people who recieve them. I was curious if this was a practice unique to KeepAppy, but she said the idea came from Toms shoes, who promise that for every pair of shoes they sell they donate another pair. She is frustrated that more companies don’t adopt this practice, in particular in tech. For companies like Toms, there is a heavy cost burden because they have to physically produce products whereas in tech Carton highlighted they just have “the hosting costs, which is so small.”
While Carton is clearly a driven entrepreneur and grew up in a family who ran their own business, her focus lies in the impact KeepAppy can have: “My background was politics and sociology, I was going to save the world from a political landscape.” Carton’s experience in social justice organisations helped grow her passion for change but also opened her up to the hurdles involved. Like many volunteers, she struggled to understand how everyone is not always united for “the common good.” Recognising the incredible work these organisations do, the rose tint began to fade from her glasses: “I understand why we need compromise, but I’ve always really struggled with it.” Carton’s solution to this conundrum came in the form of using a social enterprise model, “You can do double the amount of change in half the time”. Part of Carton’s reason for KeepAppy is her evident impatience for compromise, and this was exemplified in her schedule for the day: she was calling crisis organisations in the US to create a “nationwide response to Covid-19” on mental health because “we’ve given up on the government” in the US.
In this app, you can record thoughts and feelings, as well as track your period, and Carton was aware of the sensitivity of this information in the creation of their app. As a result KeepAppy only stores the data on the phone, rather than on a cloud. In February, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that wellness apps were sharing user information to corporations like Facebook, so while KeepAppy’s approach sounded like a great idea, Carton admitted that “We actually get a lot of slack for that” from investors. “The most valuable thing in today’s society is data, and health data has the potential to be really valuable.” The study The Market for Neurotechnology: 2018-2022 predicts that neurotechnology will be worth $13.3 billion in 2022, while popular neurotechnologies, such as Fitbits, can range in price from €120 to €190. There are many apps that can be downloaded for free, and when so many of these products can be enjoyed for free, there is still a cost: “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” The ramifications of selling and sharing data is already beginning to emerge. Carton cited the example of Fitbit pairing up with insurance companies. While some users saw their premiums go down, others equally saw it go up. Carton also noted that one in five employers in Ireland say they wouldn’t hire someone with a mental illness “and that’s the ones who actually went on the record.”
Women in tech and business
As a woman in the tech and start-up industry, she contrasted discrimination in business and politics. Carton said from her experience in politics “discrimination is so subtle,” whereas in business it is “so direct.” In our conversation, she told me one of the most startling pieces of advice she had received: “I have been told that my co-founder should be the face of the company just because he’s a boy and is more likely to get investments.” A survey ran by the Central Statistics Office revealed that as you go up in seniority in business, the number of women involved diminishes, and in Ireland, only one in nine chief executives in large businesses are women. Though there have been signs of this improving, and Carton is clearly a step in this direction, that she is still subject to discrimination is astounding. One such example is that Sims, her co-founder, gets invited to play golf, instead of her. Carton pointed out that she, in fact, loves to play golf, while Sims does not even play.
“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”
For anyone looking to venture into the start-up world, Carton had some advice: “you always need to be talking about your idea… Tell everyone about your idea, the idea of securing it or keeping it secret is such bullshit”. Carton also pointed out that advice in business can be blunt and incredibly direct but “Sometimes it’s really positive because it helps you grow.” Being involved in a start-up “is the steepest learning curve you will ever embark on.” Contradicting my preconceptions of a cut-throat industry, Carton said her experience with fellow start ups has been that they focus more on “how can we help one another to get further.” For many students, coming to Trinity is one step in a much larger, ambitious life plan. Carton agreed that “We are so ambitious, so many Trinity students, our whole lives are mapped out,” and that “from a very young age [she had] not just a five- year plan, not just a 10-year plan, but a 30 year plan.” Carton was earmarked by The Independent as a woman to watch in 2020 and was featured in 30 under 30 in business in Ireland alongside her co-founder Ben Will Sims; she has achieved a lot already. To any student, this might seem daunting, but it’s worth remembering that while successful, this was not part of the plan. “My whole world has become so much more positive because I didn’t follow that plan.”
Before wrapping up our conversation, Carton offered some advice for those struggling under the Covid-19 circumstances. She was keen to emphasise “that we are all different,” so what works for Carton might not work for you and me. This tailored and individualistic approach is reflected in KeepAppy’s variety of tools. The next few weeks will be critical for the success of KeepAppy, and while the future seems uncertain for many at the moment, it is clear that Carton’s concern for their users’ data and thoughtfully tailored app can secure her a place in the tech for good movement.