Emotional Intelligence Startup Cogito Spins Out Mental Health Unit

Xconomy Boston — 

Cogito, the A.I. startup that wrings emotional intelligence cues out of the human voice, is training its focus on call centers and splitting off its behavioral health unit into a new enterprise called CompanionMX.

The new Boston-based company’s CEO is Sub Datta, who most recently worked as chief business officer at Soft Robotics in Cambridge. He says that in the last year Cogito executives realized the needs of the mental health community were so great that it needed to give CompanionMX its own team.

“We are in a complete mental health crisis, and the industry’s ability to meet those demands are not there,” Datta tells Xconomy.

Datta stresses the human and economic cost of mental health in the United States. One-in-five Americans suffer with mental health conditions, he says. About 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Mental health disorders’ collective drag on the U.S. economy is more than $100 billion annually.

“Right now, in this country and beyond not a day goes by when you open the Wall Street Journal and there’s some article on mental health,” Datta says.

CompanionMX’s technology is a combination of a patient-focused mobile app, a cloud A.I. that interprets voice and behavior data, and a dashboard for clinicians that gives them a window into their patients’ behavioral trends. It builds off Cogito’s call center system that provides customer service workers with real-time emotional intelligence assessments of callers and provides prompts to try to manage swings in customer satisfaction during a call.

Patients use the app to keep audio diaries, Datta says. The app and cloud A.I. analyze the patient’s voice for emotional cues and trends, while also collecting other behavioral metrics from the phone metadata, including call logs, text logs, geolocation. The CompanionMX system gives the patient and clinician scores on four topics, depressed mood, diminished interest, avoidance and fatigue. And the caregiver can choose to reach out to the patient or use the information as an objective metric to talk about with the patient at their next meeting.

The regulatory status of the application is still being worked out, Datta says.

“The FDA, like us, is trying to figure out what appropriate regulation looks like for companies like ours that make tools for clinicians,” he says. “What we made is essentially an aid that clinicians can use to get objective data for early intervention and to make clinical decisions. We do not make clinical decisions; a clinician does that.”

Behavior-focused health care apps have already been cleared by the FDA. This week the agency cleared Pear Therapeutics’ reSET-O app as a treatment for patients recovering from opioid abuse disorder. Doctors prescribe the app, which delivers cognitive behavioral therapy and is designed to be used alongside outpatient treatment.

CompanionMX is kicking off two research projects focusing on use of the tool for suicide prevention and pharmaceutical development, Datta says, adding that addiction therapy could also emerge as an additional application for the app.

“It’s in our pipeline,” he says. “A very high—extremely high percentage of patients with mental health disorders get treated with opioid medications, which means they naturally have a high risk of substance abuse.”

Dr. David K. Ahern, director of the Digital Behavioral Health and Informatics Research Program at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a co-principal investigator of a recent CompanionMX clinical trial, says the system “gives us continuous objective data on patient mental states and concomitant behaviors alongside their daily activities, which allows us to see patterns that help guide proactive patient care.”

He adds: “Having sophisticated, built-in sensors in our pockets creates opportunities for observing how we live that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

If you told Cogito’s founders 11 years ago that they would be letting their behavioral health unit set sail on its own, Cogito’s founders would probably have been surprised. In fact, the call center market was a more recent market focus for Cogito, whose foundational science was borne out of research out of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab under renowned data scientist Alex “Sandy” Pentland. With grant support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and the National Institute for Mental Health, the technology matured.

In 2015, Cogito raised a $5.5 million Series A round of financing and announced a push into the call center market. In July 2018, Cogito raised $37 million in what its founders called an expansion-focused Series C funding round led by Goldman Sachs’ growth equity fund.

Datta declined to detail how the Cogito equity in the spinoff is distributed. He described it only as a “classical spinoff.” Cogito CEO Joshua Feast is joining CompanionMX’s board of directors.