Up Close: Amanda Johnstone

There are few human experiences as unifying as the tragic and overwhelming grief of suicide, with not a single life having not been touched, in some way or another, by its devastating effects — be it among close friends and family, those you’ve merely met briefly or only heard of. For Amanda Johnstone, learning about suicide didn’t come from the periphery, but by experiencing first-hand what it was like to lose loved ones. As a result of that personal experience, in 2004 Johnstone began a texting system with her friends that was a means of checking in each day, something she hoped would prevent having to grapple with yet another loss. Little did she know, that system would later become the catalyst for a first-of-its-kind mental health app that wouldn’t just prevent suicide nationally, but spark lasting change globally. 

The Australian entrepreneur and tech founder is as trailblazing as they come, a formidable force who has continued to go from strength to strength, with clear ambitions of implementing and cultivating emerging technologies to better the world. A decorated technologist, inventor and investor, the Tasmanian-native is the CEO and Co-Founder of Transhuman Inc., a global Social Health Innovations company, the founder and creator of Be A Looper, a first-of-its-kind mental health app, the first-ever Australian to be named a TIME Next Generation Leader, as well as one of the most influential voices on the social audio app, Clubhouse. 

In 2016, Johnstone launched one of Transhuman Inc's most revolutionary technologies Be A Looper, a free mental health app that was the first of its kind. The app was founded on the basis of Johnstone’s own texting system with a group of friends, who had all been touched in some way or another by suicide while growing up in Tasmania, the state which records the highest youth suicide rate in Australia.

 

“For over a decade, I had my friends simply send me a number between 1-10 each day at 4pm sharing how their day was tracking,” Johnstone explains of the idea behind Be A Looper. “No words, just numbers. From there, the idea was born to turn it into a global app for everyone to use.” 

The tool is simple but revolutionary in its approach, with users able to share how their day is tracking by sending an alert to their selected friends at the same time each day. “There’s little doubt this simple routine has saved lives,” TIME wrote about the game-changing technology. The proof is there too, with Be A Looper spreading to 87 countries since its initial launch. As of 2019, the app had recorded nearly 20,000 people flagging suicidal feelings to their loop. 

“What our data, user behaviour and evidence base has shown us is proof that we can use technology to scale intimacy,” notes Johnstone. “We can swipe to share distress in real-time. We can role model vulnerability using a simple app and it connects us closer to the people we love. Caretaking for others at scale starts with prevention and building trust and relationships over time. As a society, we are ‘busier’ than ever. A simple reminder to swipe for 2-3 seconds each day at 4pm creates a daily habit which in turn; saves lives and creates trust. From there we have been able to scale our offerings and solutions and are excited to deploy those soon.”

 

Though the game-changing innovation didn’t come without its challenges, as Johnstone explains, saying that the process was “complex.” 

“The intersection between compliance, electronic health data and UI/UX was complex and expensive as we had to reverse engineer it before we took the app to market,” says Johnstone. “I suggest anyone looking to build any technology start with the Privacy by Design principles as a foundation for both build and budgeting.”

But while bringing Be A Looper to life was one of Transhuman’s most ambitious projects to date, Johnstone explains that the clear and tangible change its made over the world has far outweighed the complexities that accompanied it. 

And despite the app being created just over five years ago, it has perhaps never been more important than in the last 18 months, with the pandemic undeniably creating a seismic shift in how we communicate and care for our loved ones — wherever they may be in the world. 

“When hugs and physical distance have been scarce, we have all had to use technology as much as possible to create intimacy and a sense of community with our loved ones and colleagues,” says Johnstone. “Seeing how people have used technology to represent themselves virtually and connect has pushed innovation in the space to the forefront. 

“This does not just exist in healthcare technology, but in digital communities as a whole. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft famously said last year ‘We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.’ We have seen the rise of technologies like social audio (like Clubhouse) and even the rapid adoption of web3 create new versions of community and what it means to be connected to other humans. Brands like TIME have pushed into the NFT space and driven web3 initiatives to transform a traditional and trusted media brand to one which has the consumers interactions with the brand at the forefront, giving its audience a collective heartbeat and a wider sense of community spirit.”

Since launching Be A Looper, Johnstone has proven herself a game-changer in the tech world, becoming Australia’s first-ever recipient of TIME Magazine’s Next Generation Leader Award, joining other pioneering women such as Greta Thunberg, Halsey, Ariana Grande, and Tessa Thompson. 

Johnstone says of the achievement; 

The entrepreneur adds that it was an accolade she had long dreamed of conquering, since 1991 in fact. “Cheekily enough, I found a drawing I created when I was five, where I had put myself on a TIME cover (with the red border) and gave myself an award. It just goes to show the virtues and ethics brands instil in us from a young age. I grew up with girls who wanted to be on the cover of Playboy. I wanted to be on the cover of TIME.”

 

Most recently, fellow Australian and Tasmanian-native Grace Tame joined Johnstone as a recipient of the prestigious award. 

“Seeing Australian of the Year Grace Tame make the list in 2021 was so heart-warming. There must be something in the water with women born in Tasmania!”

Beyond the ambitions of Transhuman and developing the world of social health technologies, Johnstone is a passionate advocate for sharing and engaging with others — of all areas, not just those limited to the tech world — to create open discussions that expand on and push knowledge forward. And while the pandemic might have caused an inevitable slowing down of just how much one can accomplish, as is her MO, Johnstone used it to dominate yet another emerging technology field, social audio. 

Johnstone, alongside fellow innovators, founded ‘Talk Nerdy To Me’ on Clubhouse, creating a space where “the best leaders in the world are asked questions about how we can make the world a better place, using technology — which is my ethos.”  

“My late grandfather Patrick Bottle would always tell me to ‘Never walk past a problem without doing something about it’. We can’t turn a blind eye to local or global problems,” says Johnstone. 

The Club has opened up an entirely new and engaged audience into conversations that would usually happen “behind our closed office doors or at a private dinner table,” says Johnstone. 

What Paul [Davison] and Rohan [Seth], the Clubhouse Founders, have created is a low barrier to access digital dining tables to host them in front of a live and often interactive audience. This has both delighted and enthused the people in attendance. I always like to leave people more inspired than I found them, so I’m grateful to Clubhouse for giving myself and my guests an audio-only platform to do that on a global scale. Open source education and access to knowledge for free to tens of millions of people – what could be better than that?”

Johnstone adds, “I’d specifically like to mention my co-founders Nabil Barakat MBA, Dr Roy Sugarman and former co-founder Oliver Rozynski for their vision and daring to push the bandwidth of the intersection of technology and human spirit.”

As for what the future holds, Johnstone’s goals remain the same.

“My priorities for change are set on global impact – specifically social health, inclusion, education and climate. I want to be proof that we can make the world a better and sustainable home for all.”

If you need someone to talk to contact Lifeline, 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue, 1300 224 636.

 

“My co-founder and Lead Investor Nabil Barakat told me back in 2016 he wouldn’t invest in our company until I read the book “Winning” by his dear late friend Jack Welsh. It truly left an impact.”

“I’ve got to highlight female skin and makeup moguls in my life who have created extraordinary products I use daily: Glamnetic Magnetic Lashes by Ann McFerran, Motives Essential Brow Kit by Loren Ridinger, Triple A Skin Science cosmeceutical skincare by Chantelle O’Neill.” 

“Chance by Chanel!” 

“Continuing to light a fire in the hearts and minds of the next generation, investing time, resources, people and ideas into those who are making an impact.”

$500 to the Women's and Girls' Emergency Centre has been donated through the making of this article.