'People are in the fights of their lives' with alcohol use disorders, and Monument wants to help

More than 14.4 million adults over the age of 18 in the United States exhibited some kind of alcohol use disorder, and only about 7.9% of those people received treatment. Alcohol-related deaths number roughly 88,000 people in the U.S. -- making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the country. And alcohol-related illnesses cost the U.S. $249 billion.

For Monument founder Mike Russell, those numbers aren't just statistics, but a window into his own life. The co-founder of Monument, a tele-health service that provides access to prescription medication and therapies to combat alcohol use disorders, started the business after seeking treatment himself.

As Russell laid out in a Medium post announcing his company's launch earlier this year, Monument was formed from the realization that Russell had about the availability of alternative treatment options which weren't receiving the same attention as the rehab clinics and referrals to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that represent the most common treatment options in the U.S.

Russell, a former nightlife promoter, used to be a professional drinker (the club promotion business demanded it), and even after he left the nightlife world to become an entrepreneur, he remained a binge drinker. That behavior carried through his first failed startup, VenueTap, to his second, more successful foray into the world of tech business creation with MyClean, an on-demand cleaning marketplace.

By the time his third, and most successful startup, Paintzen, was acquired, Russell said he recognized two things -- the first was that his drinking was, in fact, a problem, and the second was that there were alternatives to AA and rehab that he could explore.

Those twin realizations led him to launch Monument, with $7.5 million in seed financing from the same group of investors that had backed him in Paintzen. Those investors, including Collaborative Fund, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Red Sea Ventures, Datapoint Capital, Corigin Ventures and NextView Ventures, all bought into a thesis that has captured the attention (and capital) of venture capitalists on both coasts -- that treatments for drug and alcohol dependence are investable businesses.

And while private equity investors are also financing networks of rehabilitation facilities as part of their push into healthcare -- venture investors believe that the remote delivery of healthcare services can provide meaningful results without the same expenses that operating a network of locations can incur. It's not the place, so much as the treatments that are available and the people offering them.

Unlike Tempest, another New York-based startup with venture backing focused on curbing alcohol abuse, Monument is working to connect people with therapists, using the platform as a gateway. Tempest's approach is built around giving a host of tools as part of a subscription service to get people to stop drinking.

Funding for Monument closed in December 2019, and by January, Russell had penned his blog post and the company began creating its community of users looking for information about ways to overcome their disorders and connecting would-be patients with therapists and physicians who could prescribe medication to treat their conditions or offer cognitive behavioral therapy to try and do the same.

There are four facets of the Monument business.

There's the free-to-access community of people looking for information and support around their decision to stop drinking and there's also free group therapy sessions available for community members feeling increased urges to use substances because of added pressure from quarantine restrictions. This is similar to the kinds of therapy sessions that companies like Ro, Hims and others are bringing to market in the time of COVID-19. For community members who want to take the next step with their treatment, there's the one-time fee to see a doctor who can prescribe medication to suppress the need or desire to drink. And, finally, Monument offers two tiers of therapy services for those who want either bi-weekly or weekly sessions.

"We connect members to physicians that understand the medication options or they could opt not to take medication," said Russell. "[Members are] connected to a licensed therapist that focus specifically on co-morbidities."

The medication-only plan costs $19. A bi-weekly consultation with a therapist and an initial consultation for a prescription costs $149 per month and a medication management plus a weekly therapy sessions costs $249 per month.

So far, Monument has around 700 people on its network and expects to see more members come on board for the free community membership as it launches in California today.

"The treatment plans were available through New York, New Jersey and Florida for our beta," says Russell. "For launch it will be those three states plus California and Connecticut."

While telemedicine providers are able to operate in all 50 states without licenses -- thanks to changes in regulations made as a result of the pressures that have been put on the healthcare system from the COVID-19 outbreak -- mental health providers still need to be licensed in the states where they operate. "We're still required to build a supply of physicians, clinicians and therapists that are licensed in each state," said Russell.

To get the new company off the ground, Russell turned to his co-founder at MyClean and Paintzen, Justin Geller, and added Amit Klein, a data scientist, as the company's co-founder and chief product officer, respectively.

"The crux of this is data," says Russell, of the importance of Klein's role in the company. "As members go into treatment -- we’re understanding health outcomes... Someone goes into a plan. Their diagnosis. We understand age, gender, drinking patterns, and then we can see if the treatment that they’re on is working or not."

And Russell stresses that the company won't use anonymized data or sell of its insights to third parties.

"It’s a binary outcome," Russell said of the company's decision to monitor the process. "We can track success… over time as we treat we build a data set and eventually it becomes personalized."

The timing for Monument couldn't be more critical, says Russell, given the increased stressors that the social response to COVID-19 is putting on people's mental health.

"People are in the fights of their lives with their struggles with alcohol," right now, Russell said.