With the U.K. facing a mental health crisis, the need to find a solution has never been more urgent. Dr David Plans, who has previously helped the NHS launch one of the first apps to self-report chronic illness, believes the answer may lie with AI. He founded BioBeats in 2013 to identify stress patterns using existing sensors in smartphones and wearable devices. With investors including Will Smith and Deepak Chopra, BioBeats is enabling individuals to take preventative action against mental illness. Using wearable sensors coupled with an app, as well as a machine learning system in the cloud to detect, prevent and treat mental disorders. It aims to allow users to understand how their body and mind responds to stress and how it affects them in their work and personal life.
Lucy Sherriff: Why is BioBeats important in this current landscape?
David Plans: Working with HR and occupational health departments in the organizations we serve, we help them build preventative strategies to predict and stem churn, and generally take better care of the mental wellbeing of their employees.
LS: What was the motivation behind starting BioBeats? Is there a personal story?
DP: What prompted me to start the research that eventually led me to form BioBeats was having a heart attack at Brussels airport 15 years ago, triggered by stress, exhaustion and burnout. At the time, even though I was told there was nothing physically wrong with me, I did every test under the sun and found that there was indeed nothing physically wrong with me. Since my background was in AI, I began to build algorithms that could have predicted that event for me, and that could have helped me lead a better life in order to avoid it. Now, I’d like us to be able to do that at scale, helping the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from unmanaged mental health conditions and badly designed working lives.
LS: There’s a lot of startups in the mental health sphere – what’s your USP?
DP: Most startups in mental health, such as Headspace and Calm, focus on just giving people content that coaches them in mindfulness or aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy. Very few focus on quantifying mental health, and of those who do, none cover the many variables and data points that make up the whole picture of mental health. We gather physiological, neurological, and psychological data across many data points from cardiovascular to movement, brain function to several validated measures of depression and anxiety, and others. The computational models we build, at the machine learning level, are a picture of the whole individual and their mental health. We then use those models to personalize their learning journey and to either optimize their mental health, or restore it if they are suffering from anxiety and/or depression.
LS: What kinds of challenges have you come up against?
DP: When we started our research, almost no one outside of computational psychiatry even spoke about the assessment of mental health and the potential of it one day become a real-time pursuit. The sensors weren’t there. Technology that could have helped was confined to neuroscience labs. This meant that overall, our biggest challenge back then was technology. We spent several years just writing algorithms that could take off-the-shelf technology such as wearable sensors designed to measure athletic fitness, and harvesting their data to better understand autonomous nervous system activity and its relationship to stress, for example. The second largest challenge we faced was stigma. No one wanted to talk about, never mind engage with, the idea that you could measure mental health in situ, within the workplace. That has changed over the years. We are now finding that corporations have wellbeing strategies in place, partly because millennial churn has changed attitudes towards what a healthy workplace should be in order to retain staff, but also partly because there is a deeper, greater conversation happening at this point as to how we should treat mental health globally. Another challenge we’ve faced has been understand when and how we should do B2C work versus B2B. Whilst we originally launched in the AppStore, we eventually realised that we had serious duty of care for people using our apps, many of whom could suffer from very serious levels of clinical depression, but we didn’t have adequate referral processes in place that would’ve helped put care in place for those individuals. We shifted towards working with corporations when we realised that in that environment, we could work closely with HR and occupational health and understand exactly what could and should happen when we found someone needed help. When we’ve gathered enough evidence and we -know- that our referral processes are robust, we’ll come back to a public launch.
LS: How are you working with companies and organizations to roll out your product?
DP: We are already interacting with national health systems and large (and smaller) corporations as well as public sector and government agencies, and we feel that ultimately, we are helping all those types of organizations rethink the future of the workplace. Most of the world’s organizations still measure productivity in terms of the only data available: P&L and output. Because of platforms like ours, they are beginning to see data they didn’t have before, and this data will inform job design/redesign, introduce new measures of productivity such as flow – from positive psychology tenets – and change occupational health from a purely reactive profession to a proactive one. We also see us having impact in how families, schools and teams of any size deal with mental wellbeing.
LS: What’s your ultimate goal? And what do you have planned for the next five years to reach that goal?
DP: Our goal is to completely change the perception of mental health worldwide towards an informed, data-driven part of overall health, and to offer the world a platform that can work across services, school systems, healthcare delivery platforms, and workforce management. In other words, to prevent mental suffering globally.
We are going to conduct randomized controlled trial efficacy studies on our current application and wearables with large-scale corporate populations in the next 12 months. In the next six months, we will open in the U.S. and begin working with our partners there. In the next 24 months, you will see us reach back out to non-corporate populations in the app stores. Our ambition is to reach our first million users before the end of 2020, and our first 10M before the end of 2021. After that, we’d like to work closely with government-led healthcare services to introduce data-driven mental health into school programs worldwide, particular in sectors of society and geographical regions where the stigma of mental health is still very high, and the resources are poor.