A partnership between TAO Connect and the University of Ottawa may be just the beginning of an expansion that will give the St. Petersburg tech company a broader presence and new groups of people to serve.
TAO — which stands for Therapy Assistance Online and has a digital platform aimed at making behavioral health therapy more accessible, efficient and effective — is licensing its tools to the government in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, said Bob Clark, CEO.
“We’re in talks with several other provinces and the minister of health on a national scale, to hopefully make this available for every Canadian as part of their national health system,” Clark said.
TAO received a $141,799 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a French language version of its therapeutic software, which paved the way for the University of Ottawa deal.
“Because our model works very well in a capitated environment, or a place where you have a single payer system, other countries with single payer systems are certainly on our radar,” Clark said.
The company has a deal with a large employee assistance program in Australia, as well as EAPs and student programs in the United States, he said. The business model also could work for Medicare or Medicaid recipients, or with a group of medical professionals who can see benefit from getting chronically ill patients effective treatment of their co-morbid mental health issues.
“Anything that makes those patients healthier makes them less expensive to care for,” Clark said.
TAO has come a long way since Sherry Benton, founder and chief scientific officer, started the company in 2014 and commercially launched in July 2015. It’s expanded from nine universities that were beta test sites to 140 sites in the United States and Canada.
“We started with just a single prototype treatment for anxiety and now we have about 400 videos and 200 interactive exercises for 26 presenting problems. That’s a whole a lot more content than we had,” Benton said. “We doubled in terms of size of the company in sales every year since we started and we’re looking to do that again this year.”
What has not changed is Benton’s vision for the company.
“The client demand problem in mental health is ubiquitous across every sector in the U.S.,” Benton said. “We wanted to build tools applicable for every adult and at some point it would be interesting to develop tools for kids.”
TAO Connect’s technology can be used in conjunction with visits to a therapist, or as a self-guided experience.
“Therapists are incredibly useful. We are not replacing therapists,” Benton said. “However we also know there are 106 million people in the U.S. and territories who live in federally designated underserved areas for mental health providers. So as effective as psychotherapy is, you’ve got to have access to it and there’s too many people who don’t because of geography, because there are not enough providers in their network or state or county, so finding alternative ways to deliver services that stretch that valuable resource of psychotherapy to more people is our goal.”
Funding round ahead
The company has raised nearly $3.5 million in four rounds of funding, including $1.1 million in 2016 from Florida Funders, New World Angels and DeepWork Capital (formerly known as Florida Angels Network).
TAO could launch another funding round later this year or early next year, Clark said. That would allow TAO to expand in more areas and grow faster in both product development and sales and marketing.
TAO develops content in-house, creating videos, animations and interactive tools used in therapy after an extensive literature review and input from experts in the field. Benton, professor emeritus and the former counseling center director at the University of Florida, is the resident expert in psychology. Clark is a veteran software developer and healthcare executive.
The company has 19 employees, 13 of them at the St. Pete office.
“Everyone who comes to work with TAO has a personal connection to the mission, whether that’s a family member who has suffered or some other experience that drives them to want to work in a place that’s trying to solve this problem,” Clark said. “We have sales people with masters’ in psychology. We have machine learning folks that have personal experience in this area.”
The company employs mental health experts, software developers and other technologists. TAO is hiring. It’s challenging to find iOS or Android developers in the area, and demand for their talent outpaces the supply, Benton said.
But it’s getting better, Benton said.
“We love downtown St. Pete and it’s not a hard sell to get people to come to the office,” Clark said.
Benton started TAO to try to reach people who had limited access to mental health treatment in the past and she’s done a great job, Clark said.
“We now have about three million people who have access to our tools,” Clark said. “If she had stayed working as the counseling center director at UF there’s no way in her lifetime she could have helped that many people.”