When star neuroscientist Thomas Insel left Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences division, last month, he joined a tiny startup called Mindstrong Health. Its mission overlaps with the project he’d led at Verily: Use the world’s smartphones to diagnose, track, and treat mental health disorders.
But while Mindstrong has just 14 employees, compared to Verily’s 500 employees and its hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, the startup’s executives say they aren’t worried about their competition. Over the last two and a half years, they say, they’ve already quietly completed a handful of clinical trials that show promise in their patented technology. Last week, they teamed up with a pharmaceutical company that’s developing treatments for neurobehavioral disorders. And on Thursday, they announced that they’ve raised $14 million.
“I’m not worried” about Google, Mindstrong's CEO and cofounder Paul Dagum told BuzzFeed News. “It takes time collecting this data, getting people enrolled. You can’t take a 2.5-year study and make it three months. It’s gotta be 2.5 years. We feel like we’re very much ahead of the game at this point.”
Based in Palo Alto, California, Mindstrong is building an app based on the emerging concept in psychiatry of “digital phenotyping.” Currently, the onus is largely on you, the patient, to seek out a therapist or doctor, and self-report your feelings and moods. But smartphones, with which patients are constantly interacting, could be a more thorough, objective source of data about the state of their minds. Could be: There’s a lot of noise in all that data, and patients would have to give the company deep access to their phones.
Mindstrong hasn’t yet published results from its clinical trials, which tested its technology in people with age-related neurodegeneration, depression, and anxiety. Other similar startups, such as Ginger.io, have previously tried using smartphone data to infer behavioral patterns and mental health problems, only to change course (in Ginger.io’s case to a text and video-chat therapy model).
Mindstrong, founded in 2014, had been in stealth mode until Insel joined, named as president and cofounder. Prior to his 16-month tenure at Verily, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist had been director of the National Institute of Mental Health since 2002.
Publicly, Insel said he was leaving Alphabet simply because “I got this terrible itch to do a startup.” In an interview with BuzzFeed News right after his departure, he said that he was happy with the leadership there. “It’s really easy to think … I left Verily because I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “That’s not true. It’s a super good place to work and the CEO there, Andy Conrad, has gotten a lot of bad press but let me tell you, that was just never ever my experience. This guy was great to work with and part of the biggest reason why it was hard for me to make a decision about leaving was him.” Insel was referring to news stories about the CEO’s reportedly impulsive and divisive management style.
Insel also told BuzzFeed News that he was satisfied with the progress his team of designers, engineers, and scientists had made. “That team is now well on its way somewhere in the middle of all this,” he said. When he left, staff members wrote in a blog post that they remained dedicated to the mission.
But privately, Insel had grown frustrated with what he saw as the politics, bureaucracy, and slow pace of Verily, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Insel was considering leaving for several months before his departure.
“Ultimately, Tom is at a point in his life that he wants to make a dramatic impact on mental health,” said the person familiar with Insel’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
One potential issue could have been a shortage of dedicated staff: Insel told BuzzFeed News that his team officially had between 10 and 15 people, but a definite count was “hard to say because a lot of people were there part of the time,” and had full-time positions elsewhere within the company. Verily employees on other teams have reportedly left due to the workplace’s lack of focus and clear priorities.
A Verily spokesperson declined to comment. When BuzzFeed News tried to reach Insel through Mindstrong, a Mindstrong spokesperson said, “People leave jobs for lots of reasons and we’re not going to dissect Dr. Insel’s reasons further. We can assure you, however, that Tom has no ill-will towards his former colleagues at Verily or the work they’re doing — in fact he wishes them well. Dr. Insel is now focused on helping Mindstrong achieve its mission of transforming the way in which care providers diagnose and treat patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.”
Mindstrong’s focus is on tracking your response times on your phone, down to the millisecond — like when you scroll through your contacts. The app, running quietly in the background, notices when you’re looking for something on a list, which way you’re scrolling, when you turn back, and when you've found and clicked on what you were looking for. The app also tracks how quickly you type on the keyboard. “All these things are very predictive of attention, concentration,” said Dagum, a scientist and software engineer.
“From a privacy perspective,” Dagum added, “it’s not as invasive as you would think.” He says that the app doesn’t collect the names of the people you’re calling or your web browser history or the content of your texts, because the staff thinks that information isn’t really that useful to begin with. “We don’t really need to know what it says, we just need to know how well your process information and how well you react and variability in reaction,” he said.
Mindstrong has wrapped two studies: one with a hundred 50- to 75-year-olds who show signs of age-related neurodegeneration, and another with fifty 18- to 35-year-olds with depression and anxiety. Each participant went through four hours of cognitive testing with a neuropsychologist, installed the app, went away for a year, and then came back and retested. The goal was to see if Mindstrong could use people’s behavioral patterns on their phones to create an objective diagnostic test for their respective disorders. A third study with Stanford University researchers, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, is ongoing in a hundred adults with major depression, and aims to measure their ability to control their emotions. Dagum says Mindstrong plans to eventually publish its findings.
Last week, Mindstrong announced that it had inked a deal with BlackThorn Therapeutics to further test its technology. The biotech firm has an experimental therapy that targets a certain protein linked to neurobehavioral disorders, and it wants to use Mindstrong’s app to passively monitor participants in a clinical study. Mindstrong ultimately hopes its customers will be health care systems that want to lower their mental health care costs — it will soon start pilots with a few undisclosed payers and providers.
“For the first time,” Dagum said, “[the app] gives us insight, visibility, in how the brain functions and how the brain responds to day-to-day stress, to organic and non-organic disorders, to your life.”
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.