A Scientist Is Leaving Google For A Mental Health Startup

Thomas Insel

Cliff Owen / AP

Less than a year and a half after Alphabet’s life sciences division hired a top neuroscientist to lead its new team focused on mental health technology, Thomas Insel is leaving. Insel will go on to be president and cofounder of Mindstrong Health, a startup dedicated to the same subject.

More than a dozen scientists, engineers, and executives, by one count, have exited the division, called Verily, since 2014. Still, the renowned neuroscientist and psychiatrist says he left because he wanted to build a business from scratch — and not because of any issues with Verily.

“It was a really hard call for me to walk away from what was a pretty idyllic and wonderful place to work,” Insel told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, minutes after he clocked out from Verily for the last time. But at some point, he said he realized, “'I want to do my own thing,’ [but] it’s hard to do at a big company.”

Insel ran the mental health division of the National Institutes of Health for 13 years until he left for Silicon Valley in December 2015. He joined Verily, then known as Google X, to pioneer that subsidiary’s mental health research and technology solutions. “The Google philosophy has been to seek a 10x impact on hard problems,” Insel said at the time. “I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health.”

Verily just raised $800 million from Temasek Holdings, a Singaporean investment firm, which gives it more financial independence from Alphabet. It also launched the Baseline Study, to establish what healthy people’s biometric data should look like, while other projects, like a glucose-monitoring contact lens and a Star Trek-like medical scanner, remain in the works. At the same time, CEO Andy Conrad appears to be toning down rhetoric about these projects being industry-changing “moonshots.” As Conrad recently told Bloomberg, “If you examine the real moonshot closely, you’ll see a dude whose job is to rivet and a lady whose job is to do some wiring.”

At Verily, Insel said, his 10- to 15-person team was working on ways to harness smartphone sensors to track how people were using them, and to use that data to draw conclusions about their mood, behavior, and cognitive state. Mindstrong, a Palo Alto startup that’s been in stealth since 2014, has a very similar mission, according to Insel.

Mindstrong has just seven people on staff, and details of how its technology might work are vague so far. But one possibility that excites Insel is tracking (with permission) how people use their smartphones’ keyboards. “You can capture a lot of subtle details about speed, errors, choices, all of that, which are pretty good surrogates for what you would normally get with a classic neuropsychological test,” Insel said. Smartphones also continually record information like location, physical activity, and sleep — all things that can change when, say, people get depressed — and that data could be used to help people manage mental illness, he said.

Insel didn’t specify whether this data-capturing would take the form of an app or something else. But he did say that a long-term vision of the company’s is to partner with a health care system to track patients with diagnosed conditions. Mindstrong is particularly interested in depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder, Insel said, and has already started clinical trials in some areas.

“The team just came together at Verily; it’s going to be a while before they can launch into clinical trials,” Insel said. “Mindstrong’s been at this for three years; they’re obviously a little bit further along.”

Mindstrong’s other founders include Executive Chairman Richard Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, and CEO Paul Dagum, who holds three patents on technologies that allow mobile devices to track and assess their users’ cognitive function.

This burgeoning area of mental health research has been coined “digital phenotyping.” But while it’s increasingly easy to collect sensor data, showing that it can reliably reflect human behavior is the challenge, said John Torous, codirector of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“Where we’re seeing the bottleneck is, what are the appropriate statistical methods to handle the large amount of data, and what are the reproducible methods to show this can be done in a reproducible way?” Torous told BuzzFeed News.

In a blog post Monday, Danielle Schlosser, a clinical research scientist at Verily, said the subsidiary’s “vision and commitment remain steadfast” to treating people with depression. BuzzFeed News has asked whether Verily will work with Mindstrong or replace Insel; Google had not responded by press time.

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