He sold his mental-health startup to Airbnb, then relaunched it as a nonprofit with a bigger mission

By Shalene Gupta

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Rob Morris had a background in social science and psychology but no experience coding. As a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab, Morris struggled with depression. He started falling behind and eventually had to take a leave of absence. When he came back to MIT, he was able to catch up, largely due to a website called Stack Overflow, where he could crowdsource coding problems, and strangers responded for free. Morris wondered if the same process could be used for mental health.

Since the pandemic, global anxiety and depression have increased by 25%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, over 25 million Americans live in an area where there are not enough mental-health service providers to meet demand. According to a 2019 study, 80% of teenagers said they’ve used their phone to look for emotional help online.

In 2015, Morris started building a platform for mental health, called Koko, where users could send supportive messages to people who needed mental health support. Morris and his partners Kareem Kouddous and Fraser Kelton raised venture capital funding and launched Koko as a startup. They also developed Kokobot, an artificial intelligence that could moderate conversations on Koko and identify anyone in crisis. Within a few years, Kokobot had two million users.

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