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Mental Health VR Companies Merge, Raise $13M

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(Engin Akyurt, Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/photos/train-wagon-people-crowd-feet-2373323/)

13 Dec. 2022. Two developers of virtual reality therapy technology for mental health disorders are combining their operations, and raising $13 million in venture funds. BehaVR in Nashville, Tennessee and OxfordVR in Oxford, U.K. say the combined company, operating as BehaVR, will offer VR treatments for a range of behavioral and psychiatric conditions.

The two companies develop therapies for mental health conditions with virtual reality. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says mental disorders involve changes in thinking, mood, or behavior that affect a person’s ability to function normally. Moreover, the agency defines serious mental illness as “a diagnosable mental, behavior, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” According to the organization Mental Health America, 20 percent or nearly 50 million adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness, with five percent of those disorders classified as severe mental illness.

Extended reality or XR technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, offer opportunities for patients to confront their anxieties in safer and guided sessions with their clinicians. In comments to the Food and Drug Administration in June 2022, the XR Association notes that exposure therapy is a key treatment approach for cognitive and behavioral therapy in dealing with anxieties, but often poses practical and safety risks for patients and therapists. With these technologies, says the group, therapists can design natural-feeling experiences that precisely fit the patient’s stage of treatment, and can evolve as the patient progresses through therapy.

Automated self-contained virtual therapy

BehaVR, founded in 2016 by Aaron Gani, develops VR therapies for anxiety, maternal health, pain management, and addictions. The company says its VR treatments adapt mindfulness techniques, and are built around its SAFE protocol for stress, anxiety, fear, and exposure, indicating exposure therapy to address these conditions. BehaVR says it designs therapy programs for use by individuals and clinicians, but also markets its digital treatments to employers and health insurance companies.

“The demand for mental health services far outstrips available resources,” says BehaVR CEO Gani in a company statement. “Providers need help, and that help is available today through our clinically-validated and evidence-based digital programs.”

OxfordVR is a five year-old spin-off company from the lab of clinical psychologist Daniel Freeman at University of Oxford. Freeman and colleagues study serious psychotic disorders such as paranoia and phobias, using their research data to design therapies with virtual reality. One of those VR tools, called gameChange, is an automated self-contained virtual therapy for people with agoraphobia, or fear of public places, particularly crowds, causing panic attacks. In a clinical trial, with results published in May 2022, participants with agoraphobia adding gameChange to their usual therapy reported more reductions in anxiety and avoidance of everyday situations than participants receiving only the usual therapy.

Gani will continue as CEO of the combined BehaVR enterprise with Freeman, chief scientist at OxfordVR, expected to fill a so-far undefined leadership position. The new BehaVR is raising $13 million in its second venture funding round, led by health care investor Optum Ventures in Boston and Oxford Science Enterprises that backs new companies commercializing research at the university. Oxford Science Enterprises provided seed funding for OxfordVR and, as reported by Science & Enterprise in Sept. 2018, led its first venture round. Taking part in the new financing are Confluent Health, Accenture Ventures, Chrysalis Ventures, and Thornton Capital.

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