Techstars UnitedHealthcare: Behind the Scenes with Kintsugi, 2020 COVID edition

December 16, 2020
Grace Chang

On a particularly bright day in May, I was contacted by Matt Miller, Ph.D. and Managing Director of Techstars UnitedHealthcare, to learn more about Kintsugi. We had just moved our startup from San Francisco to Berkeley. The COVID-19 pandemic had just surpassed 1MM in the U.S. and 3.5MM in global cases. The world around us felt fragile.

“Rick Moss at Better Ventures - he speaks highly of you! Would love to have a quick call for introductions and an overview of what you are building.”

Unexpected. After a prolonged pass, I wasn’t sure why they would mention us. Following rejections from YC, Floodgate, Pear, and others, I didn’t feel like another “quick call.”

”Nice, sure we have something set up for later this week. Look forward to speaking, Matt.”

Off the heels of a recent National Science Foundation SBIR Phase I award and with no prospect of institutional seed, Phase II was a must. 60 pages into our report, we get a note that Upwork is excited about our works and we receive a (much-needed) $25k grant—finally, some design polish for our consumer app! Five minutes later, we jump onto our Zoom call with Matt. Matt, completely outside the Silicon-Valley-o-sphere and based in Minneapolis, introduces himself warmly. Speaking to Matt felt like chatting to an old friend, and it was really easy talking to him about the real challenges we saw in mental healthcare and our ambitions to broaden access with smarter infrastructure.

“Really wonderful meeting you and Rima last week. We'd love to consider Kintsugi for our upcoming digital health accelerator with UHC.”

We pitch to a panel of 16 UnitedHealthcare C-Suite executives, and on July 15th, we received an offer to join the cohort. In our diligence, we met with all the companies from the prior cohort to set realistic expectations for the Techstars investment and requested additional executive meetings to test product-market-fit across divisions at UHC before committing to the program. Prior to kickoff, we made sure to meet all our batchmates.

As immigrant founders, the fear of starvation is real. Like your last gasp for air, every encounter was an opportunity to learn as much as possible. Every conversation was precious, and we left no stones unturned.

15-Weeks: 430+ Customer Discovery Meetings (CDM)                    

Kintsugi weekly meetings with healthcare executives
Kintsugi weekly meetings with healthcare executives

6-months prior to Techstars, we completed 180 customer discovery meetings across healthcare in the National Science Foundation I-Corps and Beat-the-Odds Bootcamp awards.

In the 15 weeks during Techstars and across 430 meetings, we created mutual learning opportunities with CIOs, CMOs, CEOs, and executive stakeholders who drive innovation at UnitedHealthcare, a Fortune 5 Company, and the surrounding Minneapolis healthcare ecosystem. Along the way, we get into deeper conversations with Amazon Care, Microsoft ACS, Pega, Kaiser, and more amongst the who’s who in healthcare.

At Kintsugi, we are developing smarter mental healthcare. We are using voice biomarkers to measure and predict well-being, and in our latest technical milestone, we are able to score clinical depression and anxiety from less than 20 seconds of free-form speech. We are proud to be FDA Breakthrough Designation and De Novo pending and funded by the National Science Foundation for developing novel AI technologies. As two women founders, it is highly unusual to tackle such a technically complex, neurologically complicated, and highly-regulated space as healthcare, but for this product engineer and machine learning scientist, both found meaningful joy in reinventing infrastructure to scale access.

CDM Insights:

  • "At the state level, 15% screening is the highest. One day, I can see Kintsugi being the fluoride in water for every call."
  • "Kintsugi can enable stratification engines to close gaps in care and value, look to RAF and Quality Improvement Metrics and price accordingly."
  • "Legal consent, legal liability, and reputational risk can kill new technologies."
  • "In the Twin Cities, Minnesotans today need to wait 3-5 months to receive mental health care. If you're African American, that jumps to many years if you'd like to seek an African American therapist. For Native Americans, it's 11 years or more."
  • “On a contact center call with the Kintsugi API, we can score clinical depression/anxiety for patients but also help detect and prevent physician burnout. Surprisingly, it is pretty expensive to replace one doctor, $500k-$1.5MM.”
  • “I'm most excited to triage and diagnose by virtual means. You have an amazing tool to triage a dramatically larger population that is cost-efficient and has a higher efficacy. I can imagine giving a presentation and the drool buckets will be out, you know this is sexy and techy.”

We were deeply curious to learn more about real problems we could solve outside of our own set of experiences. UnitedHealthcare announced our participation in the 10 company cohort, selected out of 2600 startup applicants. Soon, we were accepted into Plug and Play Health, Endless Frontier Labs - Deep Tech, OnDeck, and Berkeley SkyDeck—all incredible opportunities with unique, world-class networks. Our early days at South Park Commons, fostered an incredible appreciation for creating an open-environment where anything is possible. Our machine learning reading group and open exploration of ideas across experts were enthralling in building Kintsugi and warm lifelong friendships. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, these relationships were the reason for our first angel investments and later institutional seed. We are happy to report an oversubscribed seed.


Recent Kintsugi All-Hands: preparing for upcoming MIT CNC - Future of Healthcare & Medicine '21 demo.
Recent Kintsugi All-Hands: preparing for upcoming MIT CNC - Future of Healthcare & Medicine '21 demo.                                

Parting Thoughts

I think back to the struggle, that we still need to grapple with in our day to day, but even a year and a half ago when we had no more than $20k in our bank account, it was simply magical to be on a journey of self-discovery and purposeful intent. Where it really didn’t matter if our kernel of an idea was good enough, but that we were compelled to go deep into the why’s of building what we’ve built out today.

On December the 3rd, we demoed at Techstars, and it was a watershed moment. I am deeply grateful for our team, for my cofounder Rima, for my family and friends, for the communities, and for our advocates who really heard us. To all the future and aspiring entrepreneurs of every stripe and background, anything is possible, and we hope you achieve everything you envision and more. Our path to mental healthcare is shaped by our belief that healthy perceptions of self-worth and support from loved ones can change the world.


Berkeley startup, Kintsugi has developed novel voice biomarker technology to detect clinical depression and anxiety on the PHQ-9 and GAD-7 instruments from 20 seconds of free-form speech. Founded in 2019, former TechCrunch Disrupt & RSA Innovation Sandbox Winner Grace Chang and machine learning scientist Rima Seiilova-Olson joined forces to scale access to mental healthcare. Awarded multiple National Science Foundation SBIR grants, Kintsugi Voice Biomarker API (KiVA™) provides real-time scoring to augment clinicians and nurse practitioners in call centers, care management platforms, telehealth platforms, and remote patient monitoring apps.

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