The Man Mapping Coronavirus With Smart Thermometers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he's offering a road map to coronavirus outbreaks before they happen.
It was a dream job, world-shaking stuff. Inder Singh would go back and forth with pharmaceutical giants on behalf of the Clinton Foundation to whittle down the price of their lifesaving drugs, figuring out creative ways to deliver treatments for HIV, malaria and tuberculosis to the developing world. Then, about eight years ago, he quit.
“My frustration,” he says, “was the fact that no matter what we did, you were not going to stop the next epidemic and pandemic unless you knew where it started and how fast it was growing.”
Reactions to outbreaks then were not unlike the global response to coronavirus now — reacting a few steps behind the deadly, fast-moving virus. Singh’s recent venture, smart thermometer company Kinsa Health, is designed to get ahead. With the launch Wednesday of a “Health Weather Map” drawing on data from the company’s hundreds of thousands of internet-connected thermometers across the country, Kinsa is telling anyone willing to listen — hello, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — exactly where flu-like illnesses are spiking at an anomalous rate, county by county across the U.S. Fevers are a leading indicator of a COVID-19 cluster that requires quick testing and, perhaps, quarantine. A first look shows the New York City area and most of Florida as the worst hot spots right now, with suspected flu-like illness running 2 percent higher than what would be expected in normal conditions.
A 2018 study by the University of Iowa found that Kinsa could anticipate seasonal flu outbreaks three weeks before they happen using its temperature data. Now, Singh says they’ve “broken the forecasting barrier” and can predict flu outbreaks 12 weeks out. The breakthrough came before coronavirus, prompting his team to push the real-time heat map out to the public — with press attention in The New York Times and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.
“We’re trying to stand up a system in under a week that normally would take a year,” Singh says in the days before launch. “It’s chaos.” Singh speaks over the phone rapidly, urgently, the words spilling over themselves. It’s not just the pandemic. “Oh no, that’s him,” says Erin Koehler with a laugh, a co-worker at the Clinton Foundation who then joined him at Kinsa. “When he is working on something, he is really all in — it consumes him,” Koehler adds. College friend Evan Meyers chuckles and says, “It’s exhausting, isn’t it?”
Singh, a 43-year-old father of two, was born and raised by Indian immigrant parents outside of Pittsburgh — and to this day remains a “proud yinzer” in the words of his wife, Nita Nehru, who runs communications for Kinsa. He studied engineering at the University of Michigan, went on to pick up graduate degrees from Harvard (public policy), MIT (MBA) and both together (the Harvard-MIT program in Health Sciences). Meyers worked under Singh when he launched a chapter of the Dance Marathon charity in Ann Arbor, and recalls a driven, collaborative leader who was destined for greatness at … something. “He wasn’t sure what his role would be, but you knew that he wanted to have a big role that made a big difference,” Meyers says.
[Singh has] figured out the power of interdependence and made it work, despite our Western cowboy mentality.
Dr. Nirav Shah, the former health commissioner of New York state
Netting more than $1 billion in drug cost savings for a consortium of 70 countries — enabling millions of people to get treatment — via the Clinton Foundation, was big. Kinsa Health was designed to be something else entirely. Singh launched the company in 2012, has raised about $37 million (venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is among the investors) and grown to about 40 full-time employees. It’s a three-part venture. First, the hardware: an internet-connected thermometer (it costs $35 for the oral version, $70 to take readings from your ear, though they’re currently out of stock amid the pandemic). Second, the software: an app that keeps track of your family’s health and dispenses quick medical advice on treatment and whether, say, you’re OK sending your kid to school. And third, the bounty of (anonymized) illness analytics that can be used to inform parents and policymakers what’s going around this flu season, and where.
The data is also useful for advertisers, and Singh is unafraid of partnering with corporate giants, which can court controversy. Clorox, for example, used the app’s data to target marketing for its disinfectant products. The New York Times responded with a story headlined “This Thermometer Tells Your Temperature, Then Tells Firms Where to Advertise,” citing unease from privacy advocates. Singh retorted that disinfecting helps fight the flu, so Kinsa’s goals and Clorox’s align, all in the service of public health. The approach rhymed with his past work with the oft-villainized pharmaceutical industry.
“He’s found a way in our capitalist system to somehow advance mutual common goals,” says Dr. Nirav Shah, the former health commissioner of New York state, now a scholar at Stanford and an adviser to Kinsa. “He’s figured out the power of interdependence and made it work, despite our Western cowboy mentality.”
Now, Lysol is paying to get Kinsa thermometers into 1,300 schools, allowing nurses to spot problems and trends early. The benefit to Lysol, says Singh, is advancing their health-conscious brand mission — and earning some nice PR. Singh has plans to reach 5,000 schools and is eager to scale up further with his simple solution. Wearables may be all the rage in health tech, but Singh, always thinking on a mass scale, says they are still too niche. Every family has a thermometer, and no one’s giving a first grader an Apple Watch.
With most American schools shuttered in an unprecedented attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 — and government measures growing more drastic by the day — Kinsa’s map could help advance and refine the effort to contain the disease. But the CDC did not respond to requests for comment, as every businessman from Jeff Bezos on down is flooding the government these days with ideas and offers for help.
For those paying attention, there’s a new tool on the block — and an impatient founder behind it.