Getting Tomo off the ground
Tomo co-founders Gus and Fahad on how it all began
Originally published on the Tech City UK blog in July 2016
Getting a social startup off the ground is hard. Getting a social HealthTech startup in the deeply underserved mental health sector is harder. Finding the right acceleration partner is making the difference.
We started Tomo in late 2015 with an idea. Depression destroys your memory and sense of time. This stops you doing the habits that keep you healthy: being active, being social and generally being well. A habit tracker specifically for depression can prompt you to do more and take better care of yourself. Building a community around this will help people suffering from depression help each other and help themselves.
On paper we should have gotten off the ground straight away. The problem is big: there are 6.4m people in the UK with depression right now and only 25% are in any kind of treatment. Waiting lists on the NHS for a therapist are around 9 months long, and practitioners are open to innovative ways to help. We have relevant backgrounds: Fahad worked as a neurobiologist at the National Institute of Medical Research, Gus designed research programmes at Cambridge.
We know depression: Fahad has managed chronic depression since he was a teenager. His lived experience formed the original concept. He sent photos to his sister to prove he was getting up and going to work. Gus has cared for a loved one with depression. When he heard about Fahad’s concept it clicked. Team Tomo was born.
Cue four months of design meetings, some market surveys, and endless refining of the details of the concept. We had a patchy strategy, hadn’t properly segmented our market, and knew little about product design. We started looking for help. Our first break was the excellent FFWD pre-accelerator course in Spring 2016, which got us talking about our concept in the right way and looking for the next steps in the right places.
However, we needed more intensive mentoring and weren’t at the right stage for the later stage accelerator programmes. Tomo needed an accelerator that would accept us without an experienced technical co-founder and be able to work with the demands of testing a HealthTech product. We drafted innumerable applications, spent a week making product and team videos, and scoured the web for the right fit.
Activate Capital’s startup lab is the accelerator we needed. Two days a week, we spend an eight hour day in their offices taking our business to pieces and putting it back together again. Activate’s version of the acceleration process is five of them and you entirely focussed on developing your business. We tested our assumptions and started from a clean slate. Nothing was off the table: we had to justify market, concept, and solution. We have had intensive strategy sessions, pitch training, and a team of experienced developers building our prototype with us. The team have been fully behind us from day 1, introducing us to vital contacts in the NHS, private medical and user testing sectors.
We didn’t know what to make of Activate initially. This is the first programme they have run and it involves an hour-long commute to Ealing Broadway. We turned up on a Monday morning to meet the team, expecting a four hour second interview. Instead they took us out to lunch and we spent the afternoon designing an acceleration programme that worked for all of us.
As the course enters its sixth and final week we have a functioning prototype, a crystal clear idea of our minimum value proposition (MVP), and a detailed costed timeline to deliver it. What remains is to put together an investor pack to go and out and raise the money we need to take Tomo to market. It has not come easy – the days are demanding and Activate’s partners are rigorous in challenging all of our assumptions. However, it has paid off and Activate are offering further investment to develop the product they have helped us plan.
Activate’s Lab is not the right fit for everyone. It is not possible to run conventional development cycles alongside its demands on your time. If your team already has experienced technical capacity then you won’t get the best value. Other accelerators have larger networks, and many more mentors. Some businesses benefit from being part of a cohort, working alongside other companies. Our advice for early stage startups looking for an accelerator is to consider these four questions:
- What are your skills/knowledge gaps? There is no point going for an accelerator that gives you something you already have.
- Why are you accelerating? We moved from a validated idea to our MVP, others double user growth to raise a Series A. Different programmes offer different things.
- Can you fully commit the time to get the best value? Some accelerator programmes run alongside other company work, others require you to stop and re-evaluate.
- Do you fit the ethos and like each other as people? We get on well with Activate’s partners, and like their ‘all hands on deck’ ethos – it helps us get the most out of the experience.