Written by: The Circles Team

June 20, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Alex Frenkel, Co-Founder and CEO at Kai.ai. After over a decade of experience in clinical psychology, Alex dived into the tech world so he could provide millions of people with mental health support. That vision was realized through Kai, an AI-based companion to keep you mindful, grateful, and happy.

Alex, can you tell me a little bit more about you and your background? Why were you interested in working in the mental health sphere?

I majored in clinical psychology and then practiced for a few years with children, teenagers, and adults in clinics and school settings. Around a decade ago, I switched to high tech almost by mistake. I started a startup with a childhood friend as a weekend project on Saturdays. Suddenly, we had investors and we decided we were going to do it full time. So I told my team at the clinic that I was leaving to work on the startup for the next year, I’ll sell it for a few million dollars, and then come back to work at the clinic. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But I fell in love with building a team and this magical way of using technology to reach millions of people around the world, something you can’t do in a local clinic. Over the last decade, I’ve run product teams and was part of the global executive team at companies like Gett, Colu, Sears and Zlango. I felt ready to go back and build my own company taking all the things that I learned and experienced. Going back to the starting point, I wanted to use technology to help people with their well-being, happiness, and mental health.

So you really have come full Circle (no pun intended)…

Exactly, and I have two amazing co-founders. Ziv actually majored in clinical psychology with me so we studied together, and Nate, who I worked with at Sears, is the pure engineering lead. Once we started playing with different solutions, we saw the immediate response of having a text-based, 24/7 available companion that can ask the right questions and can help introduce you to new practices. We’ve been working for a year now, and that’s how we started.

Amazing. And how did you come up with the name Kai?

That’s a funny story. Originally, it was Kairon. Kairon was a centaur, half-human and half-horse. In mythology, he was the healer and teacher for some of the Gods. It sounded like a good background story for something that has a positive impact and is this personal therapist, mentor, coach, or almost personal digital Buddha. Then I spoke with Shai Wininger, the Co-Founder of Lemonade, who is super smart and experienced, and he said “it’s a wonderful story, but you should probably call it Kai because it’s shorter and easier.” It also has so many positive meanings in so many different languages, plus it has “AI” in the word, and it’s an AI. For some users Kai is female, for others, it’s male. You have this ability to decide what Kai is for you, as a user. So we’re not building an avatar with its own personality. It’s literally about you. In many ways, people feel more open sharing with an AI because there’s no judgment, no stigma, and its super, super private.

Very interesting. So you’re creating your own companion?

That’s one of the main strengths of the AI: the more you engage with it, the better it becomes, and the better it can adapt to your needs. So from early on, Kai would ask you, “Hey Julia, why are you here? What would you like us to focus on for the next few weeks?” You can choose between different tracks: you can work on reducing stress, or work on building a positive mindset, or work on habit-building and productivity. This constant data learning allows it to know what works best for each user and that is something that is very, very unique. And we see a very high level of engagement when personalization happens. So those are small, positive, magical moments, almost where you can create your own experience. And it’s different from user to user.

That’s really incredible. And I saw on your website that Kai uses Acceptance Commitment Therapy (CBT), which really caught my attention, because most, if not all, of the wellness apps I’ve seen use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). So what what made you decide to use ACT?

So ACT is a modern evolution of CBT. It combines both the cognitive side of observing your thoughts and labeling your thoughts, but also a very important aspect of acceptance, like, not judging yourself or being harsh with yourself. It also combines many elements from mindfulness. We’re also using techniques from positive psychotherapy, like journaling and gratitude. Kai is super good at getting users to get that into a daily habit. ACT just felt more relevant both to our thinking but also to our users.

That leads me to my next question. Given the year we just went through, a lot of people have experienced mental health struggles, not only during the pandemic, but adjusting to normalcy afterwards as well. How has that affected Kai?

We started to work before the pandemic, and the pandemic really accelerated everything, because I think that public conversation started to change, talking more about mental health and stress and the importance of taking care of your mental health. Before the pandemic, if someone was going out for a run, people would ask “Who’s chasing you?” and now going out for a run has become healthy and normal. Today, I think mental health is more accepted as something that you need to work on. There’s so many amazing tools and so many techniques, and you don’t need to do everything on your own, and you can get more support and learn more about the different things that work for you. So the pandemic really accelerated everything for us. It made the need even clearer for many investments in mental health and well-being. And I guess it also impacted how quickly we reached over a thousand users, with many users asking, “How can I share it with someone else?‘’ And the usage is very, very unique, because many of the users will message Kai every single day, on average, more than six to eight messages each day, and they will do that for weeks over weeks. Another interesting thing we started to use is the five questions in the World Health Organization’s Well-being Index (WHO-5). So Kai is helping almost to create this emotional KPI, sleeping KPI, screen time KPI, and a heart rate KPI. There is an ongoing measurement of your wellbeing. So on your Kai dashboard you’ll see your happiness score and change over time, and the different topics you discuss with Kai.

Like you said, during the pandemic you reached over a thousand users and people are using Kai on a daily basis. Have you ever received any meaningful feedback from some of your users?

Building your startup, early stage is always always challenging, but we get thank you letters and feedback from users, which makes everything worthwhile. One letter mentioned that her mum went through an operation during the pandemic, and going through an operation a second time was so different thanks to Kai, which provided this ongoing positive practice. So this is really, really encouraging. And the other thing, which again, like we see an improvement over time, on levels of happiness on the World Health Organization wellbeing score, we’ll see people inviting each other. So this means a lot and there’s tons of user feedback. In many peoples’ conversations with Kai, when they’re asked “what are you grateful for?” Some of them will say I’m grateful for you Kai, for having Kai in my life.

Wow. That’s amazing. Well, I’m definitely downloading it. As soon as I finish typing up this interview.

You don’t even need to download anything.! You just need to choose how you want to connect with Kai, on iMessage, Whatsapp or Telegram, and that’s it. Everything else happens through the conversation itself. I really believe that Mental Health 3.0 is going to be AI-powered and millions can receive support.

Amazing vision. Well, Alex, thank you so much for taking the time. You are making a difference in people’s lives. Especially now.