Seed funding: Melbourne startup raises $9m for mental wellness game based on tending houseplants

A Melbourne startup has raised $9m in funding for a mobile game aimed at mental wellness in what is said to be the largest venture capital seed investment for a game studio founded by women in Australia.

Lumi Interactive has been developing Kinder World since 2020. Its players take care of houseplants – which can’t be killed, and won’t die if they leave the game for too long. There are emotional check-ins where they can write down how they are feeling, or express daily gratitude, and message-in-a-bottle type kindness notes can be left for other players.

The premise was was conceived during the six pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne between 2020 and 2021 when, according to Lumi’s co-founder Lauren Clinnick, random acts of kindness made the world a better place.

“[It was] a really conscious design decision [for the plants to live] so that it wouldn’t feel like something you could fail or feel really pressured and never come back to,” Clinnick said.

She said the wellness aspect had been developed on the advice of a behavioural researcher, Dr Hannah Gunderman, and had been embraced by women and non-binary users on TikTok who provided feedback on the game’s development.

Kinder World was not designed to replace other ways people could improve their mental health, Clinnick said, nor to lock people into the game all day.

“It’s just another experience in the basket,” she said. “A big amount of our players are actively in therapy, actively doing other work.

“They just want something that feels like a nice community space, and a lot of them will show up because when you do your wellbeing activity, you then put your little plant on a windowsill and you will get a message from another player almost like a fortune cookie that’s just a message like, ‘I hope you can drink or eat something you really like today.’”

The app is ad-free and free to play but the company is developing in-app purchases and a subscription option.

Clinnick said a major roadblock to obtaining funding was that the app pushed back against the traditional expectation of social media and mobile game apps designed to keep players in the app for as long as possible.

“It was very important to us that we designed for pretty much a five-minute session in the morning and a five-minute session in the evening,” she said.

After initially crowdfunding, Lumi last week raised US$6.75m from a range of investors including 1Up Ventures and Galileo Ventures, in what Clinnick called a daunting process.

“I’m serving up my hopes and dreams. This is my baby … it really can be a very emotional experience. Especially as a female founder, I had some very disrespectful and confronting experiences for pitching.

“It is tricky being in Australia, especially just because of the timezone. We were pitching to people in Europe and Israel but it meant it was a very late night, or people in the US and it was a very early morning.”

The app is still in testing on iOS and Android, before an expected launch towards the end of 2022.