Former NIMH director leaves Verily to start mental health startup

By Jonah Comstock
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Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, has left Verily after a little under two years. According to a report in Nature, Insel will be starting a new startup called Mindstrong that will be focused on using smartphones to detect mental health conditions.

Insel joined Verily, a subsidiary of Alphabet that at the time was called Google Life Sciences, in September 2015 after a 13-year-stint at NIMH. Insel apparently worked at Verily on a not-yet-public project with a similar aim to his new startup. The company published some details in a blog post announcing Insel's departure.

"One of the primary challenges in mental health is the lack of an objective, precise and comprehensive measurement system," Verily Principal Research Scientist Dr. Danielle Schlosser wrote. "We believe technology will play a critical role in this area with the untapped potential of digital measurement to enable earlier diagnosis and intervention ... We’ve conducted in-depth user studies with patients, providers and payors, and what we learned is that the fundamentals of our success will be based on enabling greater access to a human-centered care experience that moves treatment decision-making from guesswork to data-driven precision. Our team is translating these principles into a solution set that will be designed for individuals with depression, one of the most prevalent mental health disorders."

Schlosser will lead the mental health team following Insel's departure, according to Nature.

"Our team at Verily is evolving, but our vision and commitment remain steadfast," Schlosser wrote. "We are bidding a fond farewell to Dr. Thomas Insel, who has helped shape our vision and to build a multidisciplinary team of mental health clinical researchers, data scientists, product designers, and software engineers, all passionately committed to rethinking the way we approach diagnosis and care in mental health. We look forward to carrying this vision forward!"

Insel, meanwhile, is cofounding Mindstrong with Richard Klausner, a former director of the US National Cancer Institute, and Paul Dagum, whose LinkedIn profile says he has been Mindstrong CEO since 2014. Dagum holds three patents on various methods to analyze cognitive function based on various passively collected data from smartphones, including motion, GPS, app usage, touchscreen usage, and voice.

The method, called digital phenotyping, isn't new in mobile health, but it is an area where there is plenty of room for development. San Francisco company Ginger.io has been working on a similar technology for several years, though its ambitions go beyond mental health: the company has conducted pilots to use digital phenotyping to monitor chronic conditions as well.