Brendon_Wong

I'm a social entrepreneur and product manager that's been involved in EA since 2013! Right now, my interests lie in the areas of self/life improvement and societal transformation.

I'm the COO of Roote, an educational hub and startup studio focused on systems change to ensure humanity has a bright future. This includes reducing human and animal suffering as well as x-risks (see Roote's article on meta existential risks).

I'm also the founder of Better, a research organization and startup studio that is working on improving well-being and well-doing. We're specifically operating in the space of evidence-based self-improvement. Our theory of change is that recommendations we make can significantly amplify the efforts of EAs and EA organizations as well as improve people's lives in a highly cost effective manner.

Wiki Contributions

Comments

Stress - effective ways to reduce it

Out of curiosity, what is the inclusion criteria for frontpage posts? Ignoring the broader global well-being considerations, if this is a "meta intervention" to increase the well-being/effectiveness of EAs, would that be "relevant to doing good effectively" which is the stated description for frontpage posts?

EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study

These are great points! FYI, jh is Jonathan Harris who runs TPP.

I'll preface my response by saying that I'm not an expert in this area; Will and I mostly focused on the impact investing side of things, and Hauke or someone on the Mind Ease team could likely provide a better response.

My understanding is that most popular apps (e.g., Headspace, Calm) offer free versions to people [including people in low- and middle-income countries]. I suppose MindEase would have an edge if it offers the full (premium) version for free, but it still seems quite difficult to compete with highly popular apps like Headspace/Calm. What do you think? And has this model of offering an app for free in low- and middle-income countries worked for any apps in the past?

I think that Headspace and Calm may not be the right reference points since they're not designed to tackle anxiety and depression, whereas Sanvello (formerly Pacifica) is. Headspace and Calm strike me more as "mindfulness apps" versus "mental health apps." For instance, it doesn't look like Mindspace and Calm feature any CBT exercises, whereas Sanvello does. I have paid access to Calm via my employer, and while I haven't used it much, it looks like all it has are guided meditations. Reviews of Headspace and Calm support my initial impression and mention that they just have guided meditation and music. I  expect that evidence-based practices specifically designed to target certain mental health conditions are significantly more efficacious than guided mindfulness meditations.

This distinction might've made it so that this Psychology Today review from 2019 mentions Sanvello as "the most popular" mental health app, ignoring Headspace and Calm. Regarding competition, it mentions that Sanvello has 2.6 million registered users, which is smaller than Headspace and Calm but still seems significant. It seems like other apps, including ones I've never heard of, have also been able to get decent user counts. For example, Moodpath reached 1 million downloads in 2019. Regardless of whether Headspace and Calm are competitors, Sanvello and other apps would still need to be competed against. Unlike other industries, like network effects with social media, I don't think that the major mindfulness/mental health apps have enough of a moat to prevent other competitors from emerging.

My understanding is that Headspace and Calm offer their vast majority of their content behind a paywall. The Headspace review I linked to suggests free users get access to one-third of a "Basics" (introductory meditation) course before they need to pay.

What constitutes releasing an app for free as "working?" It's commonly known that free apps get many more downloads and are the vast majority of apps on the iOS and Android app store, so I would expect that this would be a very effective user acquisition strategy (but perhaps not an effective monetization strategy, hence the social impact angle).

The Pacifica study that Hauke cites compares counseling alone to counseling + Pacifica. This seems like a comparison that would underestimate the effect of Pacifica. (It seems rather impressive that an app is able to have any effect above and beyond therapy, and I would imagine its standalone effect to be larger). Furthermore, I don't think Pacifica will be Mind Ease's main competitor-- Headspace and Calm appear to be much more popular than Pacifica (here and here), and they also focus on mindfulness/relaxation. Are there any estimates of Mind Ease's counterfactual impact relative to Headspace or Calm?

Sanvello (Pacifica) was likely selected because it is the most efficacious competitor in the same space. I'm not sure about how Hauke utilized the study findings in his report and his reasoning for doing so, so I'll have to defer to him on this. I'll let him know about your question!

It's worth pointing out that the report uses a very conservative counterfactual user impact estimate that is much closer to Foster's estimate than Hauke's estimate due to "principles of robust decision making under uncertainty."

Is the business analysis by Lionheart publicly available? (Apologies if you said this somewhere in your post).

It is not! TPP has not publicly released information containing private data from Mind Ease, which includes the business analysis and Foster's report. That's why the section on Mind Ease user data is not included in Hauke's report.

Thank you for the info about startups! I'm still a bit skeptical about the mental health app space in particular; are there any statistics about the percentage of funded health/mental health app startups that succeed?

There isn't too much information out there on startup success rates, and I'm afraid I'm not familiar with success data specifically about mental health apps!

EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study

Hi Robert, Foster's analysis currently isn't publicly available, but more details from Foster's analysis are available in TPP's full report on Mind Ease. To my knowledge, it was not stronger evidence that resulted in a lower efficacy estimate from Foster's research, but skepticism of the longer-term persistence of effects from anxiety reduction methods as well as analyzing the Mind Ease app as it is in the present—not incorporating the potential emergence of stronger evidence of the app's efficacy, as well as future work on the app. As one would expect, Mind Ease plans on providing even stronger efficacy data and further developing its app as time goes on.

As mentioned in our writeup, TPP used the lower estimate "because if Mind Ease still looks attractive in this "worst case," then it would definitely look attractive with weights that are less tilted towards Foster’s estimate," rather than skewing based on the strength of a particular estimate.  I think it's quite possible that Mind Ease's expected impact is considerably higher than the example conservative estimate shared in this writeup. Using different framings, such as the Happier Lives Institute's findings regarding the cost-effectiveness of mental health interventions, can also result in much higher estimates of Mind Ease's expected impact compared to GiveWell top charities.

I personally haven't spent much time looking over GiveWell's evaluations, but Hauke's full report "avoid[s] looking at individual studies and focus[es] mostly on meta-analyses and systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials." I'd expect that someone's assessment of Mind Ease's impact will generally follow their opinion of how cost effective digital mental health interventions are compared to getting no treatment (Hauke's report mentions that most people suffering from depression and anxiety do not receive timely treatment or any treatment at all, particularly in developing countries).

EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study

Thanks Sam! Great to hear this could be a valuable framework through which to view Dozy's impact from a philanthropic and investment perspective.

EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study

Hi Akash! Yep, I think Mind Ease's ability to attract users is certainly an important factor! I think of it as Mind Ease's counterfactual ability to get users relative to other apps (for example, since Mind Ease is impact-driven, they could offer the app for free to people living in low-income countries which profit-driven competitors are not incentivized to do) as well as Mind Ease's counterfactual impact on users compared to a substitute anxiety reduction app (for example, data in the cost-effectiveness analysis section of Hauke's report pointing Mind Ease potentially having a stronger effect on GAD-7 anxiety scores compared to Pacifica, a popular alternative, as well as the general rigor of their approach).

The active user estimates were modeled in TPP's full report on Mind Ease.  We provide a high-level overview of the data that was considered in the full report, which "included Mind Ease’s background and plans (including offering a free or discounted version of the app to low/middle income countries), historical downloads and active users, competitors, and financial details." The report leveraged Lionheart's business analysis, and based on my knowledge of information such as Mind Ease's historical user figures and strategic options like offering the app for free to certain populations, I think the report's user growth projections are reasonable (and those projections are only for the 25% "success" case).

As a reference point for the 25% chance of success, it's possible that many people's views on startup success are shaped by headlines like "90% of startups fail." However, the criteria for the startups that are included in the numerator and denominator of such success calculations can greatly affect the final number. Funded startups have higher success rates than one might expect. In our footnote on startup base rates which you may find interesting, "Funded ventures had a 76% survival rate (to 2010) and 27% "success" rate (exit or >75 employees)." The 25% success rate aligns very closely with the 27% success rate of funded ventures gaining over 75 employees or getting acquired in the study we cited. The study findings align with other research/reports I am familiar with.

EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study

Thanks for commenting! Our point is not only that VC markets are inefficient and thus the EMH may not apply, but also that the EMH is only a statement on the pricing of assets, and does not in fact imply that all available assets will be funded. Thus, it is possible for investments that offer market-rate returns to go unfunded and for the EMH to still hold.

Interestingly, in VC, investors and founders can actually negotiate the pricing for an investment round. Thus, it may be possible for most/all startups to produce market-rate returns if the valuation is tweaked (for example, founders getting less dollars per share than they are asking investors for in a priced round), but since many startups don't even get an investment offer, clearly not all market-rate investments are being funded.

Even if this is not the case, altruistic investors/impact investors are willing to make concessionary investments in which expected returns are lower than the market rate. For example impact investors give loans to nonprofits or disadvantaged communities at interest rates lower than the market rate, gaining both impact returns and financial returns, whereas for-profit investors may pass because they are only looking at financial returns.

In my opinion, it seems like the consensus is that primary market investments (like VC investing and loans directly to people and organizations) are much higher impact than secondary market investments, and I agree with this consensus. I think there may be the chance that creative secondary market strategies, like forms of shareholder advocacy, may have a counterfactual impact (the exact degree of which is unclear), but I haven't looked into it much yet.

"I'm interested in further research on this concept, and I'm not sure how much EA-aligned for-profits are already working on this."

Which concept are you referring to?

Ben's Shortform

This is very exciting! Great to see the EA Infrastructure Fund is funding work in this space. I've been working on a similar venture called Better (your project is most analogous to our research division). Feel free to reach out if you'd like to hear about my experiences or discuss collaboration!

It would be interesting to see which areas of life/well-being you will evaluate. We have a breakdown on our website! And also your prioritization method. We've created one which we're calling ABCD—audience, (net) benefits, certainty, and difficulty—which involves estimating and then multiplying the factors together. Loosely resembles the ITN and RICE frameworks.

A 2% well-being improvement seems pretty conservative, perhaps intentionally. Lynette reported adding 16.4 extra hours per month (a 10% increase assuming 160 hours worked per month), although I believe this was through self-reporting and not time tracking, and may not include survivorship bias and other adjustments. Still, I'd hope things like lighting  adjustments are pretty high impact.

Coordination within EA: community & ecosystems

I completely agree, I've thought this ever since I joined the EA movement in 2013, and think this space (among others) is exceptionally neglected.

Some public examples of work I've done in this space include thinking about how to improve funder, project, and volunteer/team coordination as well as providing specialized services to the community. Given that this is a neglected area with little time and money available for people to make progress on it, I think it's no surprise that the space has "a large 'graveyard' of untried proposals or projects." I think the presence of such a graveyard is fairly indisputable, and with the current way coordination is done in the community, the only path forward appears to be greater advocacy for this area to receive more time and resources and/or improving coordination specifically among people that see this as a gap, both in terms of idea sharing and collaboration, and in terms of securing funding.

I continue to be interested in this area, and anyone who's interested in potentially collaborating is welcome to get in touch!

EA Forum feature suggestion thread

I didn't know this was possible because the bio doesn't display when you are logged in and viewing your profile page, so perhaps displaying the bio itself with a button to edit it would be more obvious to users.

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