Sixteen months after leaving the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for Google’s health sciences division, psychiatrist Tom Insel is on the move again. The former NIMH director, who left Google on May 5, is starting his own company. Insel’s group, called Mindstrong, will try to infer a person’s mental-health status by analysing the way they use smartphones.

Insel stepped down as NIMH director in December 2015 in order to start a mental-health program called Verily within Google’s Life Sciences group. One of the division’s goals overlaps with that of Mindstrong's: Verily intends to build tools, which could include smartphone apps or computer programs, that can recognize characteristics of mental illness using a method known as “digital phenotyping”.

The method analyses factors such as a user’s word choice in communication, voice patterns when talking to digital assistants, their physical movements and location data to determine their state of mind. If a smartphone could recognize when its owner was feeling suicidal, for instance, it could potentially intervene by providing resources or alerting others.

Insel says that Mindstrong takes a similar approach to gathering mental-health data. The company’s cofounders 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. They assess cognitive function — which could be impaired in disorders like Alzheimer's disease — from features such as misspellings and the length of time between keystrokes, according to the Mindstrong website.

A different direction

Insel says that a handful of companies, including Verily, are pursuing digital phenotyping. “I love the idea of rethinking how we measure human behaviour and coming up with entirely new behavioural features” of diseases including schizophrenia and depression, he says. New approaches to mental illness are especially important since “we’re not doing very well either on the diagnostic or therapeutic side”, Insel says.

Verily has not yet launched any mental-health products, but Insel says that it has developed the initial parts of the program. “I felt like Verily was at a point where it was big enough and successful enough I could walk away,” he says. “I knew in moving to Verily it would be a transitional job until I could figure out what I really wanted to do, and I've had an entrepreneurial itch.”

Insel denies that his departure was due to any conflict with the company, which has lost several high profile scientists in recent months, and says Verily is interested in collaborating with him in the future.

In an May 8 blogpost announcing Insel’s departure, Verily said that its mental-health efforts will continue in his absence. The company declined to comment on whether it plans to work with Mindstrong or whether his position will be replaced.

Insel says that Verily’s mental-health effort will now be run by Danielle Schlosser, a clinical psychologist who joined Google in August 2016. Schlosser, formerly at the University of California, San Francisco, developed smartphone apps that tried to increase motivation in people who lack it because of conditions including schizophrenia and depression.