Ginger.io Raises $1.7M for Mobile Health IT, Rides Wave of MIT Media Lab Startups Trying to Understand People

10/18/11Follow @gthuang

First of all, the name is Ginger.io, not Gingerd. The latter is how the company was incorporated; but the former is its real name.

And real is what Ginger.io is becoming. Since graduating with the most recent class of TechStars Boston startups, the MIT Media Lab spinoff (from professor Sandy Pentland’s research group) has been heads-down working on its product—software that helps healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies monitor the behavior of patients via their mobile phones.

The startup has been busy fundraising too—and it is naming its investors today. Ginger has closed $1.7 million in first-round financing led by Silicon Valley-based True Ventures. Also participating were Kapor Capital (Mitch Kapor’s VC fund), Romulus Capital, and a number of angel investors, including Bill Warner, Walt Winshall, James Joaquin, and Ty Curry. All together, Ginger’s investors and advisors represent a pretty interesting mix of people with experience in big data, healthcare, and mobile software.

Here’s the idea. A mobile phone can provide crucial information about its owner’s activity level, location, and communication patterns—all in real time, more or less (assuming the person opts in). That information could be valuable to drug makers and hospitals looking to track the results of clinical trials, market medications to certain types of patients, or design new therapies for things like diabetes, obesity, or brain disorders. The data alternatives—behavioral self-reports, surveys, and the like—are famously unreliable by themselves. With this in mind, Ginger is not one of the dozens of startups developing consumer apps for tracking one’s own health and wellness (though that’s sort of where the company started). No, this is a business-to-business play.

But here’s the bigger idea. What’s really valuable is not so much the data as the insights and patterns that can be gleaned from that data. If Ginger’s software knows how you behave on a “normal” day, for example, it can figure out when your behavior changes—maybe you’re stuck in bed, or not calling your usual friends—and correlate that with indicators of problems such as doctor visits. If the software tracks a population of patients taking a drug, and some respond in an expected way but others don’t, the pattern might suggest a way to target the drug more effectively.

“If you’re a pharmaceutical company, to know a segment is behaving differently and doing better on that drug, that can help you market that medication,” says Anmol Madan, co-founder of Ginger.io and a Media Lab PhD.

What’s more, the company is harnessing its tools in computer science, machine learning, and data analytics for a much deeper purpose. “It’s about understanding people,” says Frank Moss, the former Media Lab director and software technologist who serves as an advisor to Ginger (he’s also an Xconomist). “I think it’s going to be revolutionary.”

Moss is talking about Ginger’s potential to “discover the principles behind the platform” as it grows and learns to manage—and make sense of—all that mobile sensor data. Ultimately, he sees the company “pushing the envelope on what information collected from mobile devices can do. The future is wide open to many more applications.” Moss hints that this sort of technology “could be used by companies, not just for [understanding] patients, but for customers and audiences.”

If this all sounds more like a science project than a real business, well, there is some of that. The company is figuring out what kinds of patterns are useful and what kinds aren’t; which subset of disorders are actually addressable (ones that a phone could be sensitive to); and what its analysis can really discern about patients’ health, which is a fantastically subtle and difficult nut to crack. As is standard for a company working on analytics and pattern recognition, though, its software will improve with more data and more users. And if it gets good enough, look out.

Ginger fits into a broader theme of Boston-area tech startups that have emerged from the Media Lab in recent years. Several are about understanding human social behavior by analyzing various kinds of sensor data. Affectiva is about understanding consumers’ emotions through video and other methods. Bluefin Labs is about understanding TV audiences via social media and text analysis. And Sociometric Solutions (another Pentland spinoff) is about understanding how people communicate and behave at work.

But back to the task at hand. Ginger certainly faces challenges as a small company selling its technology and services to the healthcare market, a notoriously slow-moving industry. “If you want to sell to a top-tier provider, you need scientific validation, some sort of clinical trial or randomized trial. That kind of stamp is critical,” Madan says. “You have to show here’s a significantly better outcome.”

To that end, Ginger is already working with a couple of healthcare providers and a couple of “top five” pharma companies. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has deployed Ginger’s mobile technology in a study of patients with inflammatory bowel disease, for example.

Indeed, the startup sees a big near-term opportunity here. “Pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, especially [pharma companies], are looking for a new position,” says Karan Singh, another Ginger co-founder (and MIT Sloan MBA). They want to be “responsible for patient outcomes,” he says, so they have a “need for a proactive solution.”

It’s very early days, but Ginger will be looking to add to its six-person staff later this year, the founders say. And in the coming year, the company’s goals include “broader deployment” and “defining product-market fit,” says Madan.

Moss, the company’s advisor, offered a closing thought on where Ginger ultimately could end up—and how it could advance the theme of understanding human behavior, if all goes well. “There will be several big companies, maybe a handful built in the next five years, that will make that process of understanding the science of this data easy and digestible,” he says.

We’ll be watching to see if Ginger is one of them.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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