Boston Startup Interview: Revolutionizing Mental Health with PeakMind's Rahul Rao

Florencia Papa
Florencia Papa
July 1, 2024
Boston Startup Interview: Revolutionizing Mental Health with PeakMind's Rahul Rao

Rahul Rao is our first guest in a new series of interviews with Boston-based CEOs and founders, with the goal of gaining insights directly from the city's entrepreneurial landscape. 

As a young CEO and student at Northeastern University, Rahul has taken advantage of his background in software engineering, AI, and business to create PeakMind. This innovative app addresses a crucial gap in mental health support by combining AI and gamification to engage users and provide effective solutions. PeakMind offers a series of interactive exercises, animations, reflections, all vetted by mental health professionals, to help users build healthier habits and take proactive steps in their mental health journeys. The ultimate goal is to empower users to develop sustainable mental health practices over time that can support their well-being in the long run. His strong connection to the Boston startup ecosystem has been instrumental in shaping PeakMind, underscoring the city's supportive environment for entrepreneurs. 

We sat down with Rahul to discuss AI, gamification, product management, and his relationship with the Boston entrepreneurial and academic scene.

Can you share a bit about your background and what inspired you to enter the startup world? 

For me, it started with a love for solving different problems. There's always an elegant, simple solution to seemingly complex issues across various domains, in my case, mental health, sustainability, AI, or cybersecurity. From a young age, I enjoyed thinking of out-of-box solutions and building value around them. 

In high school, I worked in clinical research, aiming to be a psychiatrist. For about three years, I worked with patients with mental health disorders and engaged with them in trials for new medications. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I started a vaccine drive, providing vaccine access to communities of close to 4,000 people. We then wrote a research paper on the pandemic's psychological effects. 

Mental health has been deteriorating since then, and I saw a significant problem. As I progressed through high school, I studied computer science and business because I love building technology with business value. In college, I pursued a double major in these fields. I did a full-stack software engineering internship in my freshman year, built a customizable website builder for a finance/insurance company, and then moved into product and growth roles.

My six-month co-op at a startup was insightful, where I worked as a product manager, AI developer, and GTM specialist. I gained experience with Gen AI and its offerings. Afterward, I did independent consulting with Scale AI along with various startups in Boston, Seattle, and Asia to help build AI-based products and develop GTM strategy. 

I realized my passion lay in the intersection of product management and AI, focusing on product development, technology, and AI. Currently, I'm interning at Smartsheet, an enterprise work-management software solution, working as a product manager in Seattle. I'm also working on PeakMind and will return to Boston to work at Bain Consulting as a product manager. 

What brought me to PeakMind is a major gap that I noticed.  In clinical research, I saw patients diagnosed and treated for issues. In school, I saw people struggling without diagnoses or treatment. I found that there were no solutions for those struggling without understanding why. After months of therapist and consumer interviews, I had the realization I wasn’t alone in this observation.  

I found my cofounder, a roommate of mine with previous success in the car toy business and expertise in organic marketing. A few months later, our next two co-founders joined us, a designer and developer with a successful graphic design company, and a backend developer skilled in building complex web applications and modular microsystems. Together, along with our passionate team, we inspire to build a solution that people would actually want to use.

Could you describe your role at PeakMind and how you are engaging with the startup community in Boston? 

I'm the CEO of PeakMind. I conceptualized and founded the company, working with my co-founders to bring our product to life. This idea came to me over a year ago when I was dealing with anxiety from multiple projects and responsibilities. I sought resources and spoke to many people, but failing to find an effective solution. I found solace in hiking, being outdoors, and meeting people, which led me to realize the importance of community. I wanted to create a way to feel that sense of community digitally, from virtually anywhere.  

As CEO, I focus on defining our product and target audience. I lead meetings with therapists and mental health providers to gain insights. While my experience in the domain is valuable, the input from licensed professionals is crucial. Our team includes behavioral therapists and full-stack engineers who collaborate in product development. We also have advisors with extensive experience working with patients, especially youth, who provide feedback before we build.

Our private beta is currently in the hands of multiple groups of mental health professionals, who are providing us with consistent feedback to help us improve our product. 

The startup community in Boston is fantastic, especially for college students. I competed in Northeastern University's incubator, the Husky Startup Challenge, and we placed third. The judges' feedback was invaluable in shaping our product into a viable business. 

Boston offers many resources and opportunities for startups. For example, PeakMind was selected to pitch at Techstars Boston after being finalists in our university's competition. We received feedback from VCs, helping us refine our business pitch for future fundraising and partnership efforts. 

As a student and founder, I benefit from many resources in the Boston community. We’ve tabled at school events and AI conferences to demo our product and receive industry feedback. I’ve also been selected to be the new director of Northeastern’s Husky Startup Challenge, leading the fall 2024 cohort to build a business from ground zero and compete.  

Boston's ecosystem is among the best in the US, alongside San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. There are many partnerships and startups here, making it a top location for entrepreneurship. 

What specific challenges have you encountered in the Boston market, and how has your company adapted to overcome them? 

Competition is fierce. While there are many resources and much support, there are also many people trying to do similar things. Differentiation is crucial; ensuring that what you're building is truly unique and presenting those ideas effectively is key. 

Another challenge is outreach. There are many investors, mentors, and potential partners in Boston, but getting taken seriously can require persistence. I view it as an opportunity to learn from others. My approach to working with other companies and startups is collaborative. I recognize that while PeakMind and I have much to offer, others do too. I’ve found it beneficial thinking about these interactions as partnerships rather than simply seeking help. As a student, I'm able to ask for support early on, and people are often willing to engage when they see a mutual benefit. This mindset has helped me navigate and overcome these challenges. 

Can you elaborate on the role of AI in your platform and how it enhances the user experience in addressing mental health challenges?

There's a lot of recent research showing that AI can support mental health, but there are nuances to this. First, there are significant security concerns. Data must be private, and we should not be able to tie a person's identity to their data within the app. 

Secondly, users need to feel that the AI is ethical and safe. It’s crucial that all actions happen under controlled environments, ensuring data isn’t stored improperly or accessed by unauthorized individuals. Security is a major concern in healthcare AI, and we prioritize it to make sure everything is privatized. Even as admins, we shouldn't be able to link individuals to their data. This was our first step in developing our technology. 

Additionally, our AI needs to be active and useful. We don’t want to be just another chatbot. Instead, we aim to provide an assisted approach, linking users to resources using empathetic language. We focus on offering actionable insights rather than merely acting as a virtual therapist. 

We're trying to think differently about AI. It has become a buzzword, but our goal is to start with data and use it meaningfully. We collect various data points, such as check-ins, interactive exercises, and metadata about users' preferences and well-being. With this data anonymized, we can offer insights and help users make informed decisions. 

AI is powerful because it allows us to contextualize qualitative information and transform it into actionable recommendations. For instance, if a user shares how their day went, we can analyze the factors affecting their mood and suggest improvements. 

Our approach to AI is gradual. We start by making data available to users, then analyze it, and eventually provide suggestions based on that analysis. AI is integrated only when necessary to enhance the product’s value. 

Overall, we ensure that our features are data-ready and well-developed before incorporating AI. This careful approach ensures that AI adds value and supports the product’s use case effectively. 

What inspired you to integrate gamification into mental health support, and what benefits do you see it providing to users? 

Gamification can be approached in two ways: actual games and gamified education. We're focusing on the latter. Initially, we were unsure of our direction—whether to build a game or an app. We decided to build something quickly, test it, and iterate based on feedback. This approach helps us create a product that fits the market efficiently. 

Gamification enhances engagement, which is crucial for mental health support. Mental health improvement requires routine, and users need to take charge of their own health. Gamification encourages users to stay engaged and build these routines. Our research, including feedback from testers and mental health partners, shows that gamification is particularly effective for our target demographic: Generation Z (16 to 26-year-olds). 

We aim to build a routine around mental health, making it a daily practice. Gamification provides context for working on mental health. For example, our app includes gamified education modules like breathing exercises, interactive coping mechanisms, animations, and reflections, all designed to resemble hiking up a mountain. Users gain elevation and rewards as they progress, not based on money but on their efforts. This approach makes mental health more accessible and engaging, especially for those who might not think about it or care about it as much. 

Our target users are students like us who know they are struggling with mental health challenges but don't know where to start. We want to provide an engaging way for them to learn about mental health and how to manage it. Our goal is to help them build a routine, whether they continue using PeakMind or move on to their own methods. We aim to facilitate this process, ensuring users have the tools they need to support their mental health. 

Can you comment on PeakMind’s beta and how it’s influenced your development process? 

We officially started PeakMind in December, establishing our LLC and getting things rolling. The development of our Swift iOS app began in February. Between December and February, I focused on building some AI models, compiling the datasets we wanted to use, and collaborating with mental health professionals to design the application. 

In February, we moved into an alpha stage, getting initial feedback from about 20 testers—mainly friends, family, and some of our advisors. About a month ago, we launched a private beta that included 20 to 30 mental health professionals, various consumers of our application, about 30 college students, and technology startup AI professionals. 

This first stage of the beta was about gathering feedback from our target consumers and professionals. We aimed to refine our app, ensuring it provides long-term value before pushing it out for a public beta. We’re currently incorporating feedback from these professionals to prepare for our public beta launch in the next few weeks. 

We're planning our main product launch for this September, aligning with the back-to-school period. Our goal is to have the product ready by August for a soft launch, allowing us to address any remaining issues related to scaling, content delivery, and overall functionality. This phase is crucial for refining the app and ensuring it meets our users' needs effectively.

In which platforms will PeakMind be available? 

Initially, PeakMind will be available as an iOS app, which we've developed natively in Swift. However, based on feedback and discussions with therapy groups and psychologists who work online anonymously, we've decided to expand to a cross-platform experience. 

Our goal is to provide a seamless experience across iOS, Android, and web platforms. The iOS app will focus on native features like self-care and habit tracking, while the web app will cater to functionalities more suited for desktop use, such as the Pomodoro Technique or tools for work productivity. Over the coming months, we'll gradually integrate features from the iOS app into the cross-platform version, ensuring that users on all platforms have access to essential functionalities. We plan to begin with the communities functionality, allowing access for communication anywhere at anytime. 

Our aim is to make PeakMind accessible to a global audience, recognizing that iOS usage isn't universal and that users across various devices and platforms can benefit from our mental health support tools. 


Rahul Rao's work with PeakMind highlights his dedication to addressing mental health challenges through innovative technology. As PeakMind gears up for its launch, it promises to make mental health support more accessible and engaging. 

Are you a CEO or founder in the Boston area? We’d love to hear your story. Reach out to be featured in our series and share your insights with the community.

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