I often refer to Ginger.io as the most innovative digital health startup, but I have never thoroughly explained the reasoning behind this analysis. It all comes down to four simple facts which are outlined below.

Elite Team led by visionary founder

When I first met Anmol Madan, co-founder of Ginger.io, at the 2011 mHealth Summit I was struck by the combination of pure simplicity and grandiosity at the core of his vision.

To build a “human check engine light” is no small feat, but to do it using passive sensing technology was way beyond the scope of what anyone else was talking about that week. The only question I had was whether or not they would be able to build a success business around the proven technology.

In the time since then, Ginger.io has continued to push their core thesis to limit, that their algorithms can “infer” human condition by simply monitoring cell phone usage in a truly non-intrusive and unobtrusive fashion.

Madan and his co-founder Karan Singh have also shown their savvy for strategic deal-making with the acquisition of San Francisco-based startup Pipette, which was co-founded by Ryan Panchadsaram, formerly of Microsoft where he ran design and user experience for Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011. One big move in the right direction toward building that business.

As everyone knows, great big ideas are one thing, executing on them is an entirely different ballgame. One of the best ways to demonstrate and distinguish the value of a new technology is to enter it in one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of high profile developer challenges and startup pitch competitions hosted across the country.

There are few more decorated startups over the last 12 months than the team at Ginger.io, taking home the top prize at several of the most competitive and high profile competitions focused on digital health including the 2011 Data Design Diabetes Challenge sponsored by Sanofi-Aventis, the 2012 SXSW Accelerator, and most recently the Janssen 2012 Alzheimer’s Challenge.

After they won the SXSW challenge, I began thinking about how impressive they must have been to outshine all of the consumer-facing technology, and wondered what it could be that set Ginger.io apart. Then while reading Frank Moss’s autobiography, The Sorcerer and His Apprentices, about his time as the Director of the MIT Media Lab, I leapt out of my seat on the redline as Moss recounted one of his first experiences after being recruited to run the Lab, the infamous Red Balloon Challenge hosted by DARPA, the advanced research agency within the DoD.

Basically, the Red Balloon Challenge was issued by DARPA to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ARPANET, the direct predecessor of today’s global internet.

It was on that date forty years earlier that the first message was sent from researchers at UCLA to colleagues at Stanford over a network of merely four Interface Message Processors, which were basically prototypes for today’s routers. DARPA decided to distribute ten weather balloons randomly across the US and challenge teams to find them using social networking technology alone to “prove just how powerful the Internet had become in the forty years since that first message”, as Moss quotes DARPA researcher Regina Dugan saying at the time.

Anmol Madan, along with four other Media Lab graduate and post-doctoral researchers, devised a clever incentive scheme using the $40,000 reward offered by DARPA. The team described their model at the time as follows:

“We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on … (see how it works).

It might play out like this.

“Alice joins the team, and we give her an invite link like http://balloon.media.mit.edu/alice. Alice then e-mails her link to Bob, who uses it to join the team as well. We make a http://balloon.media.mit.edu/bob link for Bob, who posts it to Facebook. His friend Carol sees it, signs up, then twitters about http://balloon.media.mit.edu/carol. Dave uses Carol’s link to join … then spots one of the DARPA balloons!

Dave is the first person to report the balloon’s location to us, and the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team is the first to find all 10. Once that happens, we send Dave $2000 for finding the balloon. Carol gets $1000 for inviting Dave, Bob gets $500 for inviting Carol, and Alice gets $250 for inviting Bob. The remaining $250 is donated to charity.”

DARPA Director at the time, Dr. Regina E. Dugan, was quoted as stating, “The Challenge has captured the imagination of people around the world, is rich with scientific intrigue, and, we hope, is part of a growing ‘renaissance of wonder’ throughout the nation.”

Acute Diagnostics – The Human Check Engine Light

One key demographic for a technology like Ginger.io is the so-called “worried well”, or those who are healthy but not very vigilant in managing their health and want a system that will alert them when its time to start paying closer attention. As co-founder Anmol Madan told me when I first met him at the 2011 mHealth Summit, the vision for Ginger.io is to commercialize the technology he developed while completing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab and develop a true “human check engine light”.

He envisions a future where sophisticated algorithms can “infer” with 90 percent accuracy the condition of a patient by simply monitoring their current everyday usage of their smartphone devices passively, including identifying patients suffering acute emergent conditions such as the flu, as well as pinpointing which diabetic is likely suffering multiple symptom flare ups, in both cases nimbly providing automated connections to pre-identified life-lines (i.e. parents, spouse, primary care physician, etc.).

The first experiments conducted by Anmol Madan during his research at the MIT Media Lab focused on health care were tracking students living in dorms at MIT and Harvard over the period of one full school year. Madan developed an application for a Windows Mobile phone to conduct co-location and communication sensing to measure characteristic behavior changes in symptomatic individuals, reflected in his/her total communication interactions with respect to time of day, diversity and entropy of face-to-face interactions and movement.

The paper states quite boldly that “using these extracted mobile features, it is possible to predict the health status of an individual, without having actual health measurements from the subject.”

Ginger.io’s software was loaded on 70 phones and given to the students, each of whom also competed a multi-question survey daily on their mental and physical health.

Questions asked included:

  • Do you have a sore throat or cough?
  • Do you have a runny nose, congestion or sneezing?
  • Do you have a fever?
  • Have you had any vomiting, nausea or diarrhea?
  • Have you been feeling sad, lonely, or depressed lately?
  • Have you been feeling stressed out lately?

Data was gathered over a 10-week period in early 2009. Students who came down with the flu tended to move around less, make fewer calls, and send/receive fewer SMS late at night and early in the morning.

After collecting the necessary date, Madan was able to apply his algorithms and infer with impressive accuracy which students suffered from the flu and when based on the subtle variations in their cell phone usage. Ginger.io has designed their app to alert a named contact, perhaps a relative or doctor, when a persons communication and movement patterns suggest they are ill.

Chronic Disease Management

As I established above, I envision that at some point ginger.io will transition its R&D from proving its app’s clinical accuracy.

For this intelligent software, healthy lifestyle recommendations can be subtly inserted into the fundamental user experience of the smartphone, such as alerts triggered to identify highly rated health food stores and restaurants as a user walks past, or encourages patient behavior through deep integration with the many health incentive platforms focused on the health and wellness market with the largest employers and providers being the primary clients.

With the resounding success of Apple’s Siri experiment on the iPhone 4S, new artificial intelligence tools have finally been embraced with open arms by the mainstream consumer. Google’s major gamble with its wearable computer Glasses is evidence that it feels the pressure to provide a competitor in the consumer artificial intelligence space, showing its willingness to push the envelope in consumer devices to compete with Apple and Microsoft.

It is because of this new excitement and convergence around A.I. features is smartphones and now wearable computers that I believe Ginger.io will be the first health care app acquired for more than a billion dollars by one of the major consumer device players.

The Power of Passivity

The real power behind Anmol Madan’s vision for the future is the almost entirely passive, non-invasive, and unobtrusive nature of his technology. If there is one thing everyone should take from the revolutionary ideas and inventions coming out of MIT Media Lab, Ginger.io as the best example, is this inherent simplicity and elegance, yet:

“I think the best technologies disappear, they fade into the background, they’re relevant when you want to use them and they get out of the way when you don’t.”

– Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square, speaking on Charlie Rose