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Ideas Made to Matter

Consumer products

First step to connected health? A smart thermometer.

Inder Singh, MBA ’06, is looking forward to the day when anyone can tune into a health report for up-to-the-minute news on what colds, flus, and other contagious diseases are circulating nearby.

To get there, in 2012 Singh founded Kinsa, a company creating and selling smart thermometers that not only take temperatures but also enable users to monitor symptoms and medications, keep records for the doctor, and connect with others to see what illnesses might be going around their neighborhood or school.

“For the first time in history, we will have a system to track the spread of disease—what I like to call the ‘health weather,’ a real-time understanding of what’s going on,” Singh said. Aggregated, anonymized health data from the associated Kinsa smartphone app will provide a leading indicator of the spread of illness.

“At Kinsa we’re working on what I believe is the biggest issue in health care: stopping the spread of disease,” Singh said. “The mantra of health care is early detection, early response. These connected devices will allow for much earlier detection, and that will transform the way health care services are delivered.”

Long interested in improving the health of people worldwide, Singh came up with the idea for Kinsa while working as executive vice president of the Clinton Health Access Initiative in 2011. He was home sick with a nasty bug, and after eight straight days of high fever, he sought help online. “I thought I had some common contagious disease, so maybe somebody else had it too,” he said. He was shocked to discover there appeared to be no way to determine if others in his area were experiencing similar symptoms. “I thought, ‘I live in this very connected world … but I have so little information about the health situation around me,’” he said.

At the same time, Singh found himself increasingly frustrated at work. Although he had succeeded in brokering deals that saved nearly $1.5 billion in drug costs for developing nations, he was vexed by how difficult it was to fight diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria with extremely limited information on how and where infections were spreading. What was needed, as he saw it, was a way for people to share their knowledge to fight disease.

So, Singh teamed up with inventor and technologist Edo Segal, a father of small children who was similarly frustrated by the lack of information available about the spread of disease. Together the two invented Kinsa’s first product—a flexible, battery-free thermometer that plugs into a smartphone for power and interactivity.

Singh said they chose to develop a thermometer because “the first device people go to to confirm illness is the thermometer. We’re piggybacking off that common behavior and expanding what people get from the device.” The associated app enables users to log symptoms and share information with contacts so that they can see at a glance, for example, that a stomach bug is going around their child’s preschool.

The idea took off, and to date the company has sold more than 20,000 of its $29.99 stick thermometers and plans to unveil an ear thermometer within the next few months.

The company is also proving to be a success with investors. In December, Kinsa announced it had raised $9.6 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, FirstMark Capital, Andy Palmer, and others. “We’ve got some killer health and tech investors. They believe not only in our mission but in our business model,” Singh said.

A graduate not only of MIT Sloan but of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program in 2007, Singh said the network of contacts and the credentials supplied by MIT have proved crucial to his company’s success. “That and my work at Clinton are why I’ve been able to scrape and paw and pull together people to do this,” he said. Kinsa currently has 12 employees in New York City and will soon open an office in San Francisco.

The other reason Kinsa is succeeding, according to Singh, is that it is dedicated to improving the health of people—not just in the United States but all over the world. “We built a business model that we hope can achieve a broad social mission, not the other way around,” he said. “That’s been something I’ve dedicated my life to, moving the levers of capitalism and finding similar incentives to achieve social change.”

Singh said he hopes that within five to ten years Kinsa will be giving all its thermometers away for free. Already this winter, Kinsa plans to give free thermometers to as many as 20 U.S. schools in an effort to combat the spread of flu. Once the company is no longer monetizing the hardware, Singh said the plan is to make money by connecting ill people to necessary services. For example, Kinsa could partner with drug companies to speed the delivery of medications or with doctors to enable quick consultations.

One day, the company might even team up with news outlets to provide the “health weather” report. As Singh discovered himself when he got sick back in 2011, “People want to know if there is a high level of illness going around.”

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