Amid Brexit Fallout, U.K.-Listed PureTech Debuts Speech Diagnosis Firm

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 6/28/16, 12:50pm. See below.] PureTech Health starts companies in cutting-edge areas of biomedical science and often owns them outright. Its latest aims to create software that listens for warning signs of depression in people’s speech patterns.

The unveiling of the firm, called Sonde Health, comes at a curious time for Boston-based PureTech. Shares of PureTech are publicly traded, not in the U.S., but on the London Stock Exchange. Like most of the world’s stock markets, the LSE has plummeted since Britons voted late last week to leave the European Union.

But PureTech shares are among the few that have remained in relatively good standing. While the FTSE 100—the LSE’s Dow Jones-like index—has sunk 5.6 percent since the “Brexit” vote came in, PureTech (LSE: PRTC) shares are up 4.1 percent as of Monday’s close. [Update: On Tuesday, stock markets including the LSE rebounded, and PureTech ended the day up nearly 7 percent at £154.50.]

PureTech CEO Daphne Zohar declined to comment on the company’s stock performance Monday.

The firm raised $196 million in its June 2015 IPO, and reported having more than $300 million in available cash at the end of the year. Last year it reported losses of $58 million, and the year before of $76 million. It counts a dozen companies in its portfolio. It considers seven of them “growth stage,” with clinical trials or significant preclinical programs in progress, and five it calls “project phase,” which are not as far along. None have gone public on their own, although one, Gelesis, tried to no avail.

[Updated with second-day comments from Daphne Zohar.] “Unlike a VC we aren’t trying to exit out of our most promising opportunities,” said Zohar.

With its preference of providing most if not all of the support for its companies, PureTech’s share price—and its ability to raise more cash—will be crucial to its fortunes. Zohar said that the firm has “all the funding we need for the next few years.”

In its end-of-2015 report, PureTech estimated the aggregate value of its growth stage startups at $292 million. Those include Vedanta Biosciences, a developer of microbiome-related treatments, and Akili Interactive Labs, which is making therapeutic video games. It did not provide an estimated value for its project phase startups, which include Sonde Health.

Before Sonde can commit to a commercial goal, cofounder and chief operating officer Jim Harper said the firm has to prove that the academic research it’s founded upon will work “in a real world environment”—using smartphone-like devices, for example, instead of high-end recording equipment in a lab.

“Speech requires an incredible amount of coordination of large areas of the brain with the musculoskeletal and respiratory systems,” said Harper. Disruptions of normal speech patterns—pauses of various lengths, changes in pitch, or tones that result in rough-sounding speech, for example—could point to underlying problems, a worsening condition, even a risk of suicide.

“Indicators are strong that this technology provides useful information on depression,” said Harper. Pregnant women, for example, are at risk of depression during pregnancy and post-partum, or after childbirth. U.S. government groups have called for more screening; Sonde might eventually provide one screening tool.

But academics in the field so far have only conducted a series of relatively small studies. Sonde is working on a bigger study not just to build evidence to convince clinicians and regulators to trust the diagnosis, but also because refining the underlying technology—sometimes referred to as “machine learning”— requires large amounts of data.

Eventually the company would like to apply its speech analysis technology to other neurological disorders. The technology also must evolve from a device that people interact with to technology that can passively monitor people “to move toward prevention,” said Harper. Most people at risk of a worsening condition aren’t actively monitoring themselves. “It ultimately has to move into the background,” he said.

Harper acknowledges the privacy implications in technology that can screen people for disorders without their knowledge. One solution, he said, is to create software that analyzes speech without recording or storing it.

Sonde is licensing work from MIT’s Lincoln Lab that was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Other groups around the world, including Australia’s research center known as NICTA (National Information Communications Technology Australia), have also pursued speech analysis for mental health diagnosis. A University of Michigan research group made headlines two years ago with a software program called PRIORI that listens for vocal clues that a person with bipolar disorder is on the verge of a mood swing.

[Updated with details about PRIORI.] Melvin McInnis, the Michigan psychiatry professor leading the PRIORI program, told Xconomy that no company has been formed yet. A clinical update will come this fall at a speech processing conference.

The U.S. Army wants to use the same Lincoln Lab technology as Sonde to diagnose concussions and other brain injuries on the battlefield, according to this press release. The Army press release notes that an “industry partner” also has licensed the Lincoln Lab work.

Harper confirmed that Sonde is the industry partner in question, but he declined to confirm the Army release’s description of Sonde’s work as a device “similar to a smart phone” and of Sonde’s timeline to get FDA clearance.

“We are not commenting or disclosing any plans related to implementations of the technology on any other hardware platforms at this time,” he said. While Sonde will work with the FDA, which must clear products that claim to influence medical decisions, Parker said that the company has not announced a specific timeline.

Photo courtesy of Jason Nelms via a Creative Commons license.