Meet our JLABS @ Shanghai Resident Company, Mobio Interactive

By JLABS
Q&A

Mobio Interactive was founded in 2015 and has already positioned itself as a pioneer in delivering clinically proven digital therapeutics aimed to help people understand and improve their mental health and well-being.

 

The Problem Our Solution
Mental health has increasingly come to the forefront of global awareness. However, even when mental health services are available, they’re often under-funded, over-subscribed and difficult to scale across regions1. As the world looked towards myriad digital solutions for all kinds of activities this year, there’s also been greater interest in the emerging field of mobile health and digital therapeutics2; however, there remains a significant lack of clinical validation in these areas1. Mobio Interactive has created a clinically validated digital therapeutic, Am Mindfulness, demonstrated to help people enhance stress and emotional resilience through tailor-made programs that employ psychotherapy, including medical-grade mindfulness practices3. With no more than a smartphone camera, Am’s proprietary technology provides an objective measure of stress4, producing data that contribute to a personalized experience that maximizes efficacy5.  

 

This month we caught up with Mobio Interactive’s Co-Founder, CEO and Chief Scientist, Dr. Bechara Saab (“Besh”), to hear more about how the company began and what it could mean for the industry and patients.

Hey Besh, you had a successful academic career before co-founding Mobio Interactive, what inspired you to take the plunge and transition to entrepreneurship?

Well, I really did it because I had no choice! It was so evident that this was the opportunity that would add the most meaning and potential to my life – I really couldn’t say no to it. The decision was straightforward from that perspective. However, I didn’t fully make the leap until I had proof that our mindfulness app really could beat placebo in randomized control trials. This was key in helping me realize that we truly had something new and meaningful, and something we could continue to build.

 

So, what’s Mobio Interactive’s vision, what was it that made you realize you had to do this?

Our long-term vision is to help restructure the healthcare economy. More often than not, in my view, healthcare institutions prioritize treatment rather than prevention and access is often tied to people’s ability to pay – even in more wealthy countries. We believe that overall, treatment costs per person need to go down while global accessibility needs to go up. Technology is the key to making all this possible. The ubiquity of mobile devices is making digital therapy scalable in a way that was previously unimaginable.

 

That sounds amazing, but what does this technology look like in practice?

Firstly, to make our idea a reality we needed to make it quantifiable and that demands having an objective measure. Fortunately, the human stress response is expressed through biology that we can readily measure, like the variability of our heartbeat. Since the dilation of arteries impacts skin color, including the face, and arteries dilate in step with the heart, rhythmic changes in skin color can – in theory – be used to measure stress. To test this, we partnered with Waterloo University in Canada to derive computer vision algorithms that let us capture heart rate data from the face using a camera. We then trained a deep neural network with data of this nature using self-reports of stress from many thousands of experienced meditators throughout the world until the AI was able to predict stress on all its own.

 

Can you talk us through how you’re making this scalable?

Thanks to our work so far, we now have a consistent measure to gauge someone’s stress levels, and we can even measure stress with something as simple (and common!) as a smartphone camera. A core usage of this stress data, in addition to real world evidence of efficacy, is the tailoring of psychotherapy and mindfulness exercises to each individual. This is AI-enabled, objective biomarker-driven digital therapeutic personalization. And since this entire process is reliant on software, not people or technical resources, it scales quite well.

 

It sounds so simple but what have been some of the challenge you’ve faced along the way?

One of the fundamental challenges has been the fact that stress is not always bad. Stress can be good at times. Therefore, a challenge we’re tackling is the objective quantification of emotion in order to provide context for the stress we measure. At the moment, we regard this as being very much a tech challenge, since the face is also a rich source of emotional information, and we’re now looking at using neural networks to help measure this.

 

Your vision is global, so where does Asia fit into that? What’s the benefit of being based in the region?

Having a foothold in Asia is great because of the many emerging markets hungry to leapfrog technologies as they upgrade their healthcare economies. China is of particular interest because not only is the leapfrog hunger ever-present, but also people tend to be more willing to try new things, especially in the digital realm. This makes for an agile atmosphere with accelerated progress. While China’s healthcare system has taken amazing strides in recent decades, it remains one of the most crucial areas of the economy where new tech can massively improve quality of life. This is a major goal worldwide, but in China the appetite for tech-based healthcare is palpable – and they appreciate efficacy at scale. In my opinion, China has a chance to lead the way here, globally speaking, provided they embrace new tech like we’re building at Mobio Interactive.

 

Your company is a resident of JLABS @ Shanghai, how have you found the experience?

That’s a bit of a tricky question. We were meant to move into our JLABS office earlier this year, but COVID-19 has caused some delay, so I can’t say much about the on-site experience. Online, however, being a Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS resident company already has its perks. We were attracted to apply for residency given The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies’ deep experience in consumer healthcare in mainland China, meaning the opportunities to learn are endless. We also get access to impactful resources which is pretty important as we expand our digital therapeutics throughout China. Additionally, though we didn’t join to attract a deal with our hosts, if a deal does make sense, we feel it’ll definitely be easier to enter into discussions as a resident company.

 

Lastly, do you have any tips or insights for aspiring entrepreneurs?

The first thing I have to say is don’t become an entrepreneur unless you have to. What I mean is your drive must be a force that you cannot resist. Most start-ups fail, and you’ll need that level of drive to have a fighting chance.

Second most important thing is to make sure you have capital before you quit your day job. It can take a long time to get your idea off the ground, so give yourself some runway!

Lastly, there are thousands of mistakes I’ve made and therefore thousands of things I’d do differently a second time around. But I never let these mistakes hold me back. I use them to identify my weaknesses. I use them to propel forward. My body is covered in scars and I’ve never been more fit.

 

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Standalone smartphone apps for mental health—a systematic review and meta-analysis | npj Digital Medicine (nature.com)

2 https://www.mobihealthnews.com/news/why-digital-therapeutics-are-flourishing-under-covid-19

3 Effects of a Mindfulness Meditation App on Subjective Well-Being: Active Randomized Controlled Trial and Experience Sampling Study | JMIR Mental Health (mental.jmir.org)

4 AI-enabled remote and objective quantification of stress at scale | Biomedical Signal Processing and Control Volume 59, May 2020, 101929

5 https://www.midigitaltherapeutics.com/science.html