Former NIMH chief Tom Insel leaves Verily, launches startup Mindstrong that will analyse smartphone use to detect mental-health status

Tom Insel left Google's life sciences division Verily on May 5 to co-found Mindstrong, a startup that aims to infer a person's mental-health status by analysing how they use smartphones. Insel remarked that "in contrast with most of the technology in medicine, there's an opportunity in mental health to do everything on the phone." He said "there's a lot to the changes in how we type on keys; it's the speed; it's the latency," adding that "there's rich information there that hasn't really been mined."

Insel, who stepped down as US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) director in 2015 to set up a mental-health programme within Verily, said both Verily and Mindstrong are trying to determine whether smartphone behaviour can predict the onset of suicide, depression, schizophrenia or mania. He noted that a handful of companies, including Verily, are using digital phenotyping, which analyses factors such as misspellings, length of time between keystrokes, word choice, voice patterns, physical movements and location data, to determine users' state of mind.

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Insel indicated that Mindstrong already has some promising preliminary research in this area, but cautioned that the "jury is still out" on whether any of this technology will change clinical outcomes for people in the long-run. "We need something in the mental-health space," he said, adding that "it hasn't had the innovation or anything that has moved the needle in the past three or four decades."

The other founders of Mindstrong include Richard Klausner, a former director of the US National Cancer Institute, and Paul Dagum, who holds patents on at least three digital phenotyping methods that assess cognitive function. Insel denies that his departure was due to any conflict with Verily, adding that Verily is interested in collaborating with him in the future.

Meanwhile, Insel said Verily's mental-health effort will now be managed by Danielle Schlosser, a clinical psychologist he hired last August. While Verily has not launched any mental-health products, Insel noted that the company has developed the initial parts of their programme.

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