In the summer of 1993, hip-hop group Run-DMC was enjoying a comeback after fading from the limelight. The group had released the album "Down with the King," which topped Billboard's rap and hip-hop chart and revived Run-DMC to their central place in the rap scene.
"We back on the road. We back on MTV. We touring now. Life is grand. Life is great," recounted Darryl McDaniels, better known as DMC. But even with his career at a high point, McDaniels struggled to cope with mental health challenges. "Right when this album and video and song drop, I woke up the very next day wanting to kill myself."
It would take more than a decade for McDaniels to seek counseling to help him address alcoholism and depression. Since then, he's been a proponent for mental health awareness.
McDaniels has taken that advocacy to a new level by leading his first seed investment, a $3.25 million round in Uwill, which runs a behavioral health platform for college students.
Boston-based Uwill connects students with therapists through video, messaging and phone. It takes a gig economy approach that allows approved therapists to offer their services through the platform.
McDaniels hopes his involvement with Uwill can help reduce the stigma around therapy, especially for young men.
"I want to remove the guilt and shame so I can remove the pain," he said. "[People] need to have access to somebody or someone or some place to talk to. And I'm living proof of that."
The startup is helmed by CEO Michael London, who founded Examity, an edtech provider that was acquired by Great Hill Partners for $90 million last year. Stephen Cramer, the CEO of childcare provider Bright Horizons, and Princeton Review founder John Katzman also participated in Uwill's seed round.
McDaniels himself was once a college student at St. John's University—at least until Run-DMC's debut album became a certified hit and he took an indefinite leave of absence. These days, he often works with children and sympathizes with the stress young people feel, especially during a pandemic that isolates them from their peers.
Experts have warned of a mental health crisis that could happen as a result of the pandemic. And investors have wagered that behavioral health platforms will play an increasingly important role.
"Several virtual mental healthcare providers have cited increased demand since the onset of the pandemic," said Kaia Colban, an emerging tech analyst at PitchBook. "We believe much of the addressable market growth will be retained in the long term, as consumers rely on mental health services to adjust back to the 'normal' world and develop ongoing mental health practices, such as meditation."
Mental health startups Headspace, Mindstrong, Big Health and Real all raised funding deep into the pandemic. Some platforms are offering coronavirus-related content and free services to healthcare workers and the unemployed.
US healthtech companies focused on telehealth, biotech, medical devices and related sectors raised a record $3 billion from venture capital investors in the second quarter, according to PitchBook data.
US VC healthtech investment
On the 1984 song "Hard Times," Run-DMC rapped, "Hard times spreading just like the flu. Watch out homeboy, don't let it catch you." In retrospect, McDaniels sees those words as prophetic.
"The time that we're living in right now with this pandemic … there's a lot, a lot, a lot of anxiety," he said. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, my career is over. There's never going to be shows anymore.' Like, I was losing it. But then I remembered the things that I was able to experience in therapy to say, 'Take a breath. It's all right.'"
McDaniels may be new to venture capital investing, but he's an entrepreneur in his own right. He runs the comic book company Darryl Makes Comics and plans to launch his own cookie company, also a play on DMC: Darryl Makes Cookies.
Now that he's dipped his toes in the world of tech VC, McDaniels is open to diving deeper into the space.
"I could see myself investing more because there's a whole lot of problems. Once I get people's mental right, the next thing is to get the physical right," he said. "I think we need some entities and products that make our living better, our lives better."