Not long after starting her first job out of university, Chakameh Shafii started to feel overwhelmed. Her new position required a lot of travel to the U.S. and regularly switching departments within the conglomerate she worked for. “My anxiety was taking over a lot of parts of my life,” she recalls. A family member recommended Shafii try counselling, and she took cognitive behavioural therapy. The experience was life changing in more ways than one: Shafii eventually quit her job to co-found TranQool, a platform for secure online video therapy sessions.
When Shafii recommended therapy to her friends, they said it was either too expensive or too impossible to schedule. TranQool, which she runs with Saeed Zeinali, Babak Shahabi, aims to make counselling accessible and affordable to people who might not otherwise be able to get it. The trio bootstrapped the startup and emerged from beta mode in February. (Shafii is CEO.) Though it’s only available to residents of Ontario at the moment, TranQool plans to expand across Canada next year.
The service recommends three therapists, using information clients provide when they first sign up. Users can filter by gender, specialty and language, and review each counsellor’s credentials before booking an appointment. A 45-minute session costs an insurance-reimbursable $80 (compared with upwards of $200 in major Canadian cities) and is conducted via encrypted video on TranQool’s website—no app download necessary. “It was designed to make people feel comfortable doing it,” Shafii says.
Signing up counsellors, all of whom are either registered social workers or therapists with PhDs, proved challenging at first. None of the co-founders had a background in mental health—they’re all grads from the University of Toronto’s engineering program. “We got some really good advisers and learned how to speak the language of mental health service providers,” Shafii says. The trio reworked their pitch, emphasizing that TranQool is a tool that lets therapists work outside traditional office hours to help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access their services. Today, about 25 counsellors are active on the platform at any given time, with between 80 and 100 more in the pipeline, Shafii says.
TranQool raised $300,000 in an angel round this year, and it’s still in the early stages of acquiring customers. But Shafii says it’s already finding traction on university campuses. “These populations have really high levels of stress and anxiety,” she notes. TranQool has signed up about 100 brand ambassadors, at schools such as Ryerson University, OCAD and George Brown College, who blog for the company and spread the word on campus. “This generation is completely different about the way they think and talk about mental health,” she says. “There’s so much less stigma.”
Talking is just the first step, Shafii points out. “Now I get to tell my friends, ‘Here’s a tool that can help you deal from the comfort of home.’”