Emilia Theye: The psychologist using AI to democratize access to mental health solutions

Meet Emilia Theye, co-founder of clare&me, who is democratizing access to mental health solutions through ethical AI.

Antler in Berlin

October 31, 2022
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“You seem like a person,” Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore says to Samantha, his artificially intelligent virtual assistant in Her, Spike Jonze’s 2013 science-fiction romantic drama, “but you’re just a voice in a computer.” To which Samantha replies: “I can understand how the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.”

Theodore does get used to it. In fact, it’s not long before the two begin—in so much as they can—a romantic relationship that helps him better understand his failed marriage and the roots of his depression, loneliness, and general melancholy.

It’s hard not to think of Her when considering clare&me, an AI-based mental health startup offering psychotherapeutic support through an app. Co-founder Emilia Theye says the first question she is often asked is whether she has watched Her. “A lot of people think artificial intelligence is magic technology that can take over—like Terminators ruling the world, or Her, breaking our hearts. But that’s the Hollywood version of AI,” the 30-year-old German entrepreneur says. 

Theye’s Berlin version of AI is very different: an anonymous, non-judgmental companion offering psychological support around the clock via verbal smartphone conversations; altruistic and ethical interactions that break down the high barriers to traditional therapy to counteract the significant bottlenecks in treatment capacity.

Instead of the voice of Scarlett Johansson, “Clare” is personified through Theye herself. “It’s my voice—both real and cloned—so it does have a slight German accent,” she jokes. “Early tests have been very positive. Our users say it feels human and adds to the personification.” These users—who responded to paid-for advertisements on Google and Instagram—are the reason Clare is now referred to in the third person.

“We decided from the beginning not to test on family and friends because we wanted to get honest feedback from people who actually experience the symptoms we’re trying to tackle. Our early users would tell us about the funny conversations they had while we were developing the product and spoke as if Clare was a person or a friend or companion,” Theye explains. 

More than 600 million people worldwide are affected by anxiety disorders, depression, and mental illness. These numbers grew exponentially during the pandemic with people suffering from loneliness—compounded by lockdowns—or what Theye describes as Weltschmerz, a German term for melancholy and world-weariness. 

“People want and need a bigger outlet. At the same time waiting lists are getting longer.” Theye and her co-founder Celina Messner are adamant that no one should wait for over a year for a therapy appointment or up to six months for online assistance. “It’s a very long time—and it’s getting worse with the huge demand. There just isn’t enough human capital.”

"Our target group doesn’t want to talk to a human—it wants to have something more anonymous and judgment-free than a human interaction. What we are trying to do is release pressure on a system by building other mediums people can use."

clare&me's mission is not to replace traditional psychotherapy but provide an entirely new and accessible channel for cognitive behavioral therapy—available at any time or place at the click of a button. Rather than a disincentive, Theye insists the use of AI should be viewed as a USP. “It’s the value proposition of clare&me because our target group doesn’t want to talk to a human—it wants to have something more anonymous and judgment-free than a human interaction. What we are trying to do is release pressure on a system by building other mediums people can use.”

From a beer to breaking taboos around mental health

The brains behind clare&me met over a beer while on the inaugural Antler residency in Berlin in 2021. Seeking fulfillment and a fresh challenge, Theye had left her position as a strategist at the Hamburg creative agency Jung von Matt to move to Berlin and pursue her ambition of starting up her own company. After Covid derailed her initial plans to take some time out traveling, she enrolled at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) to study remotely for an MBA in innovation and business creation. It was one of her peers at TUM who told her about Antler, paving the way for her encounter with Messner.

The pair hit it off—first as friends, then as business partners with a shared mission to break the taboo around mental health and deprivilege access to support. “We both grew up with mental health privileges,” Theye explains. “Celina comes from an entrepreneurial family and also the health industry—her mum is a therapist—while I studied psychology and grew up in a home where it was really open to talk about bad emotions; to ask how you are, how you really are. We came together knowing that mental health needs an update and a change and a new solution.”

Similar values and complementary strengths made the division of labor organic: Messner, a former digital growth manager at Google, focuses on the product, marketing, and technological vision; Theye oversees investor relations and fundraising, while driving the conversation design and psychology behind the scalable and easily accessible software solution. 

Theye and Messner went from having a beer to becoming business partners with a shared mission to break the taboo around mental health support.

A sports and fitness enthusiast with a thirst for “anything that is calming,” Theye grew up in a “quite progressive” family with her younger brother and sister in Düsseldorf. As a child she dreamed of being an inventor—“like Einstein”—and today draws inspiration from the burgeoning female founder scene in Berlin. She lists among her influences the German author and filmmaker of Kurdish-Yazidi descent Düzen Tekkal, the Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, and the American politician and activist Alexandria Orcasio-Cortez, as well as the American entrepreneurs Whitney Wolfe Herd and Sara Blakely, of Bumble and Spanx fame. 

“I look up to anyone who is a nice person and who makes the world a better place—I think that’s the great challenge,” she says. “Fast-movers and role models, be they politicians or inventors of something for the greater good and with high quality. Right now, I also see the women of Iran as heroes and a great influence.”

After spending five years in England where she earned a psychology degree at Nottingham University, Theye is now happily rooted in Berlin. She believes she and Messner have found “the right ecosystem—one of the best in Europe” to develop their company. “Building a start-up has a lot to do with building personal relationships and I have a great network here in Berlin. Although, obviously, our product is in English and so we’re not going to stay in Berlin forever. We plan to launch in the UK and also look towards the US.”

In addition to bringing the two co-founders together, the Antler residency helped them break down gender stereotypes while developing a clear vision for and belief in their product. 

“It wasn’t always easy. We had to earn our respect,” Theye admits. “I think a lot of people underestimated us—two women building a tech product, as sad as it sounds—but what I learned from the journey is that the odds are against the startup. So, a lot comes down to the founder and the founding team. I’m just happy that I am part of a team where the downs are a little less low and the highs are really high, where everything is possible.”

“It wasn’t always easy. We had to earn our respect. I think a lot of people underestimated us—two women building a tech product, as sad as it sounds—but what I learned from the journey is that the odds are against the startup."

The “greatest takeaway” from the Antler experience, Theye admits, was taking on board the requisite skills to negotiate the unchartered and choppy waters of starting up a business. “There’s obviously a lot that you know, there’s a lot that you don’t know, then there’s even more than you don’t know that you don’t know. Antler sheds light into that and is de-risking your don’t knows.”

A fresh approach to virtual self-help

One thing that we do know is that, globally, an estimated five percent of adults suffer from depression. For an inherent risk-taker with a passion for innovation and a self-proclaimed love and understanding for people, the opportunity to move the needle in the field quickly became a galvanizing factor for Theye. All her brainstorming during the residency led back to mental health and, ultimately, employing a language-based artificial intelligence to develop a fresh approach to virtual self-help by using clinically proven means to behavioral therapy.

“What Celina and I both learned at our previous jobs was to focus on the product and the user—to be very user-centric—and that has helped us,” she says. Early users helped the co-founders to iron out glitches in the product and hone interactions via constant improvements to the speech model program, ensuring the voice bot sounds and acts as human as possible. Technology that combines Theye’s actual voice—including pre-recorded snippets such as breathing exercises—with cloned responses means Clare sounds as authentic as possible.

If early users helped the duo understand the limitations of their product, their feedback also inspired the company’s name. “At first, we had no name. But users said they wanted to give the person they were talking to on the phone a name, even if it was a bot. So, we went through a process of coming up with a name that could be female but also male or non-binary, one that incorporated a feeling of calm and clarity. That’s how Clare came about.”

Further down the line users will be able to choose to speak to a male voice as well—“Clare can easily be reframed as Clarence,” Theye says—although there are no existing plans to operate the service in any language other than English. Use of the app is free while the technology and algorithm are being developed, but the plan is to introduce a subscription model like Headspace, the popular meditation, sleep, and mindfulness app.

With over two million subscribers worldwide, 65 million downloads to date, partnerships with 2,100 businesses, and a valuation of $3 billion, Headspace offers a tantalizing glimpse at the potential reach of Theye and Messner’s concept.  

Theye has good reason to be bullish about their product. “All our competitors are chat-based, nothing is voice-based,” she stresses. “What I always say to our investors is that what they must believe in is that voice is the next technological advancement, or iteration, after chat. If they believe that, then we’re in the right place and we’ll have the first-mover advantage.”

Building relationships—and building an ethical app

What of those inevitable Her parallels? Theye concedes there “might” be a chance users become overly attached to Clare. “Because, obviously, they’re building up a relationship with someone’s voice and people might project things onto my voice.” But she doesn’t envisage a scenario akin to Theodore’s infatuation with Samantha any more than she welcomes whimsical corollaries to the dystopian science-fiction TV series Black Mirror

“We are aware that you cannot just put a product into society and then be surprised of the effects it has,” she says. “But we are building this app in an ethical way, to do good, and that’s why I believe we are the right people driving this.” Just as approaching one’s therapist or life coach ten times in the same day would be overstepping the mark, so too will there be limits to the frequency a user can speak to Clare. It is precisely these human checks and balances, according to Theye, that means AI—for all the widespread advances of recent years, and fanciful predictions for the future—is not yet ready to take over the world. 

“If you look at a real AI and how it’s built, it can obviously learn and self-learn and we’re incorporating that,” she explains. “But it cannot jump from A to B unless a human tells it to do that. Even though there’s no human on the consumer end of our product, there’s always a human on the tech end and development side; there’s always a human in the loop checking the algorithm, checking anyone who has been flagged due to inappropriate behavior. That’s something we’re not scared of doing.”

A recent trip to San Francisco and New York to scrutinize the US market and sound out potential investors provided Theye and Messner with the latest of many pinch-me moments on their journey. “It was a trip where we were like, ‘Wow, this is happening, it’s real, we deserve to be here, to be talking with people we respect, to be on stage and pitching our business.’ These are the moments when I look back at our first year and realize how far we have come.”

On top of Antler’s initial investment, clare&me has raised more than $1 million in funding. In five years, Theye envisages Clare as “helping millions of people around the world. Celina and I are still rocking the company, creating an ethical AI, with a base in Berlin and also abroad.”

In any case, the challenge for her and Messner will remain the same. “Everyone should have access to mental health support at any time, and support should be available but also reimbursed by businesses,” Theye stresses. “In the end we need a lot of different solutions to give people the opportunities they need and to destigmatize the topic, which is where Clare can definitely help.”

Sign up and talk to Clare.

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Since our first Berlin residency in 2021, Antler has become one of the most active investors in Germany.

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