This former Super Bowl champion has a mental health app for black millennials

In 2016, Ryan Mundy was sitting in a room full of venture capitalists introducing their startups when an idea came to his mind: none of the ideas he heard were geared toward solving the biggest problems of his life.

Mundy, the 2009 Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was struggling to find a goal after leaving the NFL in 2015. He suffered from anxiety caused by several relatives being diagnosed sequentially with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

Mental health was on his mind—and he was pretty sure that was true for other young black Americans, too. “I found it very upsetting to know how to take care of my shoulders and knees, but when it came to supporting emotional and mental health, I had a hard time,” Mundy tells CNBC Make It.

The 37-year-old says mental health in black communities in America can be a struggle: Consciousness is often low, and access to care is lower. In 2019, only 9.8% of black Americans reported receiving mental health treatment, compared to 19.8% of non-Hispanic white Americans. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In the end, Mundy decided to do something about it. In October 2020, he launched Chicago-based startup Alkeme Health, a mental health platform tailored to the needs of black communities. Alkeme — pronounced like Alchemy — has already amassed nearly 30,000 users, about 300 contributing experts and $5 million in funding, he says.

That’s a good start, but Mundy says his company’s battle is just beginning: ‘30,000 users’ pales in comparison to the country Nearly 11 million black millennials Alkeme wants to arrive.

“Stigma is an obstacle for everyone”

As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Mundy says he’s watched other aspiring student-athletes struggle to fit in and eventually go home before the academic calendar even begins. In 2008, during his junior season with the Steelers, Mundy said the standard mental health treatment locker room response was, “What’s that? How are you doing that? Get away from me.”

During his eight seasons in the NFL, Mundy played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Chicago Bears.

Grant Halverson | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Today, a lot of professional sports teams have intramural sports psychologists, and notable athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles have spoken out about the stigmas surrounding mental health. But when Covid struck, Mundy says, the telemedicine industry gravitated largely toward women, older adults, and members of the LGBTQ community.

He says black Americans have been mostly left out.

Mundy saw an opportunity. Since leaving the NFL, he has built a huge business network – he received an MBA from the University of Miami, launched and sold a reusable straw company, and became the managing director of an asset management company. He says these relationships helped him fund Alkeme relatively quickly.

He noted that the biggest challenge was figuring out how to build a platform for a community that was not more aware – or receptive – of mental health care. It may not always be welcome to start a “go therapy trial”.

Alternatively, the Alkeme website and app provide three types of health education content: live expert panels, reflective audio clips, and master skill-building classes. Master classes include lectures on combat issues often specific to black Americans, such as micro-aggression, racism, and generational trauma.

“It was something I talk about a lot, because when we talk about mental health, the automatic answer is to go see a therapist,” Mundy says. “I wanted to take a different approach, because stigma is a barrier for everyone.”

An uphill battle for black health

Mundy wants Alkeme to reach 60,000 users by the end of 2022. An Alkeme spokesperson says the company is on track to meet that goal. CNBC Make It estimates that the company’s current subscription rate of $70 per year should give it $4.2 million in annual revenue this year. (The company declined to confirm this estimate.)

It’s a very modest share of a booming market: The global mental health apps industry was valued at $4.2 billion last year, according to the Grand View Research Report Posted in February. Well-known apps like Headspace — which “reach more than 100 million people,” a company spokesperson told CNBC Make It — and BetterHelp are leading the way.

For Mundy, these apps do little to appeal to black Americans, giving him a chance to develop Alkeme into a “worldwide” [mental] Healthcare Provider for the Black Community.” Of course, note that anyone can theoretically benefit from all kinds of resources on the Alkeme platform.

“What is good for black people is good for all people,” he says.

However, there is no denying the challenge of breaking into a certain niche in an established market. Mundy says it can be stressful for the company’s seven full-time employees — and it would be self-defeating if his mental health company didn’t follow its own advice.

“I always mention my team… We need excellent work habits, but we also need excellent habits to rest and recover,” Mundy says. “Whether I’m listening to an alpha wave riding my peloton or going for a walk to clear my mind, I’m always trying to find a way to decompress so that when I’m already working, I can do my best.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Alkeme Health has 30,000 users, and aims to double that number by the end of 2022. It has also been updated to reflect CNBC Make It’s estimate of Alkeme Health’s forecast revenue for 2022 at $4.2 million.

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