An entrepreneur and investor, Ram Ramanujam (Ph.D. ENG ’81) has spent the last 31 years of his career leading a host of technology startups in Silicon Valley. Raised in the South Indian community of Gandhigram—“sort of a utopian village modeled after some of [Mahatma Gandhi’s] teachings and rural education models,” he says—Ramanujam prized education and supporting others from an early age. These values have shone through as much as ever in recent years as Ramanujam co-founded a platform and app focused on teenage mental wellness care. He says his inspiration for the project was his own daughters, whom he and his wife adopted from India in the early 1990s.
“Since both of my children were adopted, growing up for them was very challenging,” Ramanujam says. “Being girls, being adopted, they went through a lot of emotional ups and downs. I feel very strongly as an entrepreneur who has been very successful that I need to provide tools for teens and young adults. That’s why we created the Lyftly platform; we started working on that in 2017.”
Beyond his personal experiences as a parent, Ramanujam cites the mental health statistics of young adults as a motivator for launching Lyftly.
“Around 30 percent of the high school kids think they have some sort of a mental health issue,” he says. “I was astounded to learn that around 20 percent of high school kids have felt that they were so down they wanted to take their life at least once in high school. It’s more prevalent in women than men. In a survey from Boston University, 36 percent of college students felt that they would have lifelong mental health issues. Seventy percent of these people never get a chance to go talk to a therapist. We did a quick survey, and on the West Coast, the wait time to go see a mental health professional is six to eight weeks.”
Together with his co-founder, the late Devendra “Dev” Joshi, who served as chief technology officer, Ramanujam launched a totally private, anonymous, and confidential social and peer chat platform for teens and young adults, where users could comfortably discuss issues affecting them and get help from expert peers. These peers have received special training in psychology and social work. They are able to guide and coach users through the app’s chat function.
“When teens immediately need help, we direct them to the appropriate therapists, psychiatrist, hospital—whatever they need,” Ramanujam says. “One of the key aspects is that we don’t only have this free solution where they can seek help from peers; we felt we should also provide them with life coaching and emotional coaching, so we also developed a coaching platform. A lot of the work on the technology side includes the ability to leverage artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning.”
“It’s trying to change the world and make it better, it’s so clear and transparent, and you could see it in everything Ram said and did. He is super well-meaning. I think he’s a very special kind of person— just a lot of empathy.”
Lyftly launched in 2019 in both the Apple app store and Google Play store. Based on features of users’ profiles, the app is able to intuit what types of coaching can best serve the user. Basic app services are free to users, while more advanced services like coaching are offered at an affordable rate for young adults, Ramanujam says—approximately $9 per month.
Rajiv Bhat, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Martini, a Silicon Valley-based fintech company, served as an adviser and early investor in Lyftly in 2018–19 as the app was launching. His support specifically pertained to utilizing the latest technology in AI and machine learning. Ramanujam likewise serves as an investor and board advisor for Martini.
“I have been a big believer in both interventions and machine learning, and to see the two come together [through Lyftly] was fantastic,” Bhat says. “If someone is alone, in a dark situation, just having someone to talk to or being able to go to therapy to try to fix something can save people from getting to a really bad state. I was very excited to help. It’s trying to change the world and make it better, it’s so clear and transparent, and you could see it in everything Ram said and did. He is super well-meaning. I think he’s a very special kind of person—just a lot of empathy.”
Ramanujam graduated with his Ph.D. in engineering, eventually taking a position at Stevens Institute of Technology as a research assistant professor. He also enrolled part-time in a master of business administration program at New York University’s Stern School of Business to advance his skills in marketing and business strategy. His career eventually took him to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he served as a senior executive at multiple Fortune 1000 companies focused on designing and manufacturing superconductors, before leaving to work in startups and to become an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
Ramanujam’s focus shifted from hardware to software, ultimately leading him to co-found Lyftly, where he is now CEO. Lyftly is still an app available for download, but, in light of the passing of Joshi, Ramanujam has recently partnered with another company to help manage the app’s software capabilities. Though he cannot yet reveal the company’s name due to nondisclosure agreement, Ramanujam says it oversees a network of insurance companies and health care providers that focus primarily on teenagers and young adults. With the new collaboration, Lyftly will also be getting a new name.
“That process is working well, and we expect great progress,” Ramanujam says. “I’m really excited about that—this is going to really help tens of thousands of teens and young adults by combining the social aspects, the sharing aspects, and also the peer and coaching aspects. The focus is more on preventative care and early intervention. I think that is something that we as a country do not do a good job on, and I’m hoping we can make a big impact.”
How Lyftly Uses AI to Support Mental Health
The Lyftly app targets teens to young adults, roughly ages 14 to 21. At present the app has about 5,000 active users in the United States and 3,000 in India. Users create anonymous profiles, and their social interactions and activities on the app provide valuable information that can be drawn upon to tailor personalized coaching and, if necessary, interventions.
“We’re able to leverage many of the posts and chat topics that our users post,” Ram Ramanujam says. “Based on the profiles that they’ve generated for themselves in a confidential, personal manner, we pull all of the data to then be able to offer them help. It is still very much a human-augmented artificial intelligence—the AI is meant for the peers and the coaches. We train them: ‘Here is the background of the person, you may want to direct the person in the right manner.’ We don’t believe in ’bots for mental health. It’s very personal. It’s not the right thing to do.”
In addition to offering users peer support and coaching services, Lyftly also recommends activities that can help improve the lives of teens and young adults, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, being with friends, social activities, and more.
“We ask them to get engaged in many of these aspects,” Ramanujam says. “Go on a walk a few days a week. We remind them of that, we nudge them toward that. It’s always good for them, for example, to go sit in a Starbucks, get a coffee, and watch people. The type of goals they set, how they complete those goals, and any feedback they give on how that is helping them—all of that data is available to help them in their mental health journey.”
Lyftly previously partnered with several universities on the West and East coasts to pilot student ambassador programs that help promote Lyftly’s services to young adults. They also recently began collaborating with high schools in Northern California. Once Lyftly is revamped with help from Ramanujam’s new business partner, the app will target 13- to 18-year-olds. It will also involve collaboration with payers such as health insurance companies, Ramanujam says, “so they can offer even more evidence-based and comprehensive programs, if need be, that are backed by psychology and neuroscience.”
“We want to provide a very safe and confidential environment,” Ramanujam adds.