U.S.-based entrepreneur Vinay Gidwaney and his brother Veer have been forming software companies since high school. Their latest venture, Energy Inside, which the brothers co-founded in 2009, focuses on health and well-being. The first product from Energy Inside is “Pepfly,” an electronic way of listening and responding to a user’s “inner status” through a variety of online mediums. The result is a service that falls in the space between prescription antidepressants and traditional self-help books. In this discussion with India Knowledge at Wharton, Vinay Gidwaney spoke about the intersection of the Internet and personal well-being, and about his company’s future plans.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us an overview of Energy Inside?
Vinay Gidwaney: Our mission at Energy Inside is to create a space in society for well-being. There needs to be a credible brand in this area, something in between antidepressants and self-help tools. There needs to be something that people, especially young people who are on the Internet, Google and Facebook all the time, can appreciate and trust — a company, a brand, a piece of technology and a platform — to be able to achieve a better state of mental well-being. We’re trying to achieve that through Pepfly….
India Knowledge at Wharton: Energy Inside and its product Pepfly are operating in a new, emerging field. Could you describe this new space?
Gidwaney: I don’t think the field has been framed yet. It’s really the intersection of several different areas and we are at the pioneering stage. First and foremost, we work in the space of psychology. We also bring in cognitive neuroscience. And then, we bring in the Internet and web mediums as a way to deliver our solution. At a high level, we are bringing our knowledge of the brain and human behavior to the Internet to affect people’s health in a positive way.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the potential benefits of using technology in this way and what are the limits of the technology?
Gidwaney: One large benefit of using the Internet is that we can integrate into people’s lives. At Energy Inside, we try to provide assistance and an outlet for people at a time [when] they’re feeling something negative. By using the Internet or smartphones, we can be pervasive in their lives. Whenever they have a negative feeling, if they’re walking to the subway or they’re about to walk into a meeting, they can pull out their phone and use [Pepfly]. The other big benefit in using the Internet is that we can aggregate the data we gather and make the system smarter. At the core of our technology, we have developed an algorithm that recommends various experiences on the web to help people. This algorithm only gets better as more people use it and rate the content.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the things that you and your team or people in the industry are cautious about?
Gidwaney: It’s obviously important for us to be ethical in how we deal with these issues…. Severe depression and the repercussions are quite serious sometimes. In those cases [where] we provide assistance, we have to make sure that we do that in an ethical and safe way. That means that if you are using the Internet [and] if you are using a piece of software to get help, we also provide outlets if you need to reach out to a human being — there’s nothing that can replace human interaction. We [direct people] to reputable destinations. It’s important that you don’t rely completely on the Internet. You have to really bridge the offline and online world appropriately, and this is especially true for us at Energy Inside.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How does Pepfly respond in cases when someone may exhibit suicidal tendencies?
Gidwaney: With respect to users and the risk of suicide, we do two things that help to mitigate the issue. First, we ensure that we do not position the product as any sort of cure or treatment for any serious or clinical mental illness. It is important that users recognize that this is not a replacement for professional help. Second, if a user does type in any words that indicate an intention to hurt themselves or others, we redirect them to a support page that provides links and phone numbers to reputable organizations that provide assistance.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Who else is in this space? What are they focusing on and what are the trends here?
Gidwaney: There have always been technologies and ways of getting help [for] mental well-being. And of course, the field of psychology has been around for a long time. The best way to think about it is that there’s everything from antidepressants, which are the most prescribed medication in the United States, to self-help. And there’s everything in between — things that are scientific and things that are not. For example, if you go to a bookstore or Amazon, there are literally thousands of books on self-help. Much of it is not helpful. If we go towards the scientific side in psychology, there are many types of practices. For example, one of the most used is “cognitive behavior therapy” (CBT), which is … sitting down with a therapist and going through a lot of reappraisal of the challenges in your life and trying to understand how those impact your state of well-being and your mood.
The approaches in these cases are clinically-based and scientific. When we take this onto the web, there are quite a few things already happening. There are some great technologies [accessible] on your iPhone for example, that help you practice breathing. There are yoga tools. All of these affect mental well-being. Furthermore, there’s a lot of clinical or experiential evidence that says the effect is positive, beneficial. We’re trying to carve out a special area online where we work with people who can benefit from content on the Internet to positively affect their mood.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s say a 22 year-old college senior is invited to use Pepfly on Facebook. How is he or she going to engage with Pepfly and how is it going to be useful?
Gidwaney: One thing they’ll notice right away when they start using Pepfly is that it’s a private experience. We want people to feel safe in using the product. Of course, we all spend a lot of time online telling people what we think, what we’re feeling and what we’re doing. We use Facebook, Twitter and a variety of other tools to share information. Well, what we ask in Pepfly is for the user to think about what you’re feeling inside. And so, one of the first things that happens in our interface is we ask you about your “inner status.” This is different from the “outer status” that one would post on Facebook, for instance. This is actually what you’re feeling. You can type in, “I feel nervous about this exam I have coming up” or “I feel nervous about a date I have.” When you type those words, we develop an emotional signature for you. We essentially try to understand your current emotional state. And then, through a recommendation algorithm, we go out onto the Internet into a library of content that we’ve curated that we know will help you achieve a certain mood. We essentially present that content to you and recommend you to look at [the content] right then and there. These little bits of content, or “pep,” can be anything from YouTube videos to Flickr pictures to articles on the web [and] even interactive Flash games — basically a variety of items that hold emotional relevance.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Twitter is quite public unless you protect tweets, which not many people do. You’ve stated that Pepfly is private. Does that mean I need to go to another website to post my “inner status”?
Gidwaney: No. In fact, we want Pepfly to live on many different websites. Of course, there will be a Facebook and MySpace page for Pepfly, and so forth. But we also have designed it as a widget that can exist on any website. For example, there are many special-interest websites … where there may be some emotional or mental well-being challenges. That’s where we want the widget to exist. In fact, we don’t even want you to have to use the widget. We’ve set up Pepfly so that you can use instant messaging, or e-mail to let the system know how you’re feeling and the system will reply back with some “pep”. This will be linked through a free private account that you have with Energy Inside. It’s a buddy that shows up on your buddy list.
One interesting thing that we’ve heard from many of our beta customers is that oftentimes when you want to reach out to a friend and say, “Hey, I’m feeling something,” they’re not online. That may be a little disappointing. The great thing about pepfly is that … it’s always online. It’s ready for you to send a message at any time.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How much does it cost a user to register for, and access, Pepfly?
Gidwaney: Pepfly is completely free on the web. There are no costs. There are no advertisements. We don’t use this as an opportunity to push ads. Of course, the content that we link you to … may have ads on it, but we can’t control that and we certainly don’t make any money from that.
India Knowledge at Wharton: If Pepfly is free and doesn’t push ads, how will Energy Inside make money from this product? How will you go about acquiring users at an efficient rate to gain critical mass?
Gidwaney: It’s important to talk about the values we have at Energy Inside. We believe it’s possible to have a company that, as a core part of their business, has some [focus on] social good. This issue of mental well-being affects many. Well over 100 million people in the world are thought to be depressed — clinically depressed. In the sub-clinical world, virtually everybody deals with emotional challenges all the time. We don’t believe that you should have to pay to get help. We think by using the Internet, you should be able to go somewhere and feel better, and that you needn’t have to pay for that. This is the social good aspect. Certainly, as an organization, we think that there’s actually a tremendous revenue opportunity [other than] charging users for it.
One area we’ve started to explore is that there are many organizations that have a vested interest in their users or subscribers being mentally well, such as health insurance companies. A health insurance company’s primary source of revenue is their young subscribers who aren’t using the health care system. But those are the very people that are at high risk of suffering from emotional challenges. What’s known through the statistics that these companies gather is that mental well-being is very well attached to physical well-being. So if you’re depressed and you have a physical ailment, you’ll end up using more health care costs than if you just have that physical ailment. Therefore, health care companies want to address well-being issues, especially with their young subscribers.
India Knowledge at Wharton: If Pepfly aggregates data from its users to sell to insurance companies, how will privacy be protected?
Gidwaney: Privacy will be protected. We will never pass on individual information. When you use Pepfly, your health insurance company won’t see individual information at all…. What we do is look at aggregate data, like how many people are using it [and] what the overall trends are in the system. That’s all anonymized data. You’re one number amongst many that are contributing to an overall insight into the people who are using this system. We think this is valuable to insurance companies, to help them run their businesses more effectively. They can also co-brand the product … so it can be, you know, a health insurance company’s version of Pepfly. In these cases, they’re able to establish a brand relationship with their younger subscribers through this social media platform, which is something they’re really striving to do. How many young people know who their health insurance company is? It’s mostly taken care of by their school or their parents or their workplace and they don’t really think much about it. In the end, they will have to, of course. And the health insurance companies want to make sure they [build] that relationship.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Can you elaborate on Energy Inside’s business model?
Gidwaney: There is a compelling opportunity with health plans. Health plans recognize the value of emotional health of their members on their bottom line. Pepfly is a fun, engaging and brand improving way for health plans to reach out to members on a regular basis and provide real and relevant support in their daily lives. We also think there is a longer-term vision around the idea of viewing all content and media through the lens of emotion. Right now, all content on the web is largely organized by subject matter, topic area or genre. We think that we can represent the web as a source of emotional change, whereby your viewing experience, whether it be on your TV of your iPad, is driven by what you feel and what you want to feel. The business model is less clear here, but the potential could be massive. The company is currently [funded by angel investors].
India Knowledge at Wharton: How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea of Energy Inside?
Gidwaney: We believe that this is a great opportunity to make some change in the world and to do it as a sustainable and attractive business opportunity at the same time. It started when we explored this issue of mental well-being and looked into the marketplace to understand how people get help. First of all, there are a vast number of people who don’t get any help. They just live with it. For example, many people face social anxiety challenges. Say you’re in a room with a lot of people and you feel nervous talking to people and introducing yourself — some people think that’s just normal and that’s something they have to figure out how to deal with. Well, you don’t. You can actually get help for those challenges.
The problem is getting that help. When you go to a self-help aisle in a bookstore or on a website, there are so many choices. You have no idea what to pick and you can’t read everything, so you have to go on recommendations or you just pick one thing and try it out. It’s also hard to incorporate some of the things that these books talk about into your daily life. There might be good techniques in them to deal with challenges, but everybody forgets things, it’s hard to do them all the time.
Going to a therapist is very effective, but there’s a huge stigma around it. There’s also the cost issue. You can certainly get assistance through your health insurer, but a lot of people don’t want to share that information with their health insurance company. Even if you did go to your health insurance company, sometimes it comes out of pocket. There are many challenges there. There is a lack of opportunity for people to find a way to get help.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How did you all decide that Pepfly was the right product to be [Energy Inside’s] first?
Gidwaney: I don’t think companies need to have dozens of products anymore, especially on the web. Pepfly is our way of taking a technology that we’ve built in Energy Inside and taking it out to everybody, to the public on the web….
India Knowledge at Wharton: In August you launched another product, DailyFeats. Can you tell us what DailyFeats is all about?
Gidwaney: Like Pepfly, DailyFeats is all about using the Internet to feel good, but the feelings are created offline. At DailyFeats, members log the positive actions they do each day, from eating whole grains to taking the stairs to giving blood, and receive points for each action. They can trade the points for rewards such as gift cards and discounts from national and local brands. Because it is built on a social platform, members can use each other for support and inspiration. We want people to do good every day and save money doing it. Like Pepfly, DailyFeats is open 24/7 and members have complete control over their experience on the site.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Do you plan to integrate Pepfly and DailyFeats or will these remain as two separate products?
Gidwaney: Pepfly and DailyFeats are separate products with different missions. Therefore, we will keep them separate rather than integrating. DailyFeats has its own website and SMS platform and is integrated with social media outlets like Facebook and Foursquare.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Can you share your some of your other plans going forward?
Gidwaney: DailyFeats has entered the market at a time when mental and physical well-being is in need of alternative approaches and solutions. By engaging users online and inspiring them to act offline, we feel DailyFeats can truly make a difference in people’s lives. The more people we engage, and the more ways we engage them, the more impact we can have. Moving forward, we want to expand our system to support employer plans and health plans, partner with brands and businesses that enrich our members’ experience, and offer members the most efficient, intuitive web platform for positivity.