New startup Nika monitors mental health trends in teens

When Doug Kaufman left TransLoc, the Durham-based transportation technology startup he sold to Ford Motor Co., he thought he would take an prolonged break from the enterprise world.

He even purchased a farm in rural North Carolina, the place he may take a while to recharge.

“I only made it about five months,” he mentioned in a video interview with The News & Observer, “and it was not because I was bored.”

Around the time he left TransLoc in 2019, Kaufman and his spouse observed a change in his teenage daughter’s conduct. Thinking it was simply typical teenage moodiness, he determined it was simply finest to offer her some house.

But that moodiness was truly an indication of a extra extreme mental health disaster for his daughter. Kaufman, who declined to share particular particulars, was shocked by the episode.

Kaufman has a doctorate in psychology, so how did he miss the warning indicators? What may he have executed otherwise to offer extra assist for his youngster?

These questions saved spinning round in his head, till he determined discovering a solution would the following chapter of his profession. He began to speaking to different mother and father. Many of their youngsters have been affected by despair and anxiousness.

Statistics backed up what Kaufman was listening to. A Pew Research Center survey of American youngsters discovered 13% of them skilled a minimum of one main depressive episode in the previous 12 months, up from 8% in 2007. And women have been thrice as seemingly as boys to have experiences with despair.

“We need help in this area,” Kaufman mentioned.

Doug Kaufman - TransLoc_preview
Former TransLoc CEO Doug Kaufman Courtesy of TransLoc

Technology guarding in opposition to know-how

Last 12 months, he formally launched his new firm, Vertroos Health, whose mission is to offer assist for mental health in youngsters. The firm lately launched a beta model of its first product, Nika, a platform that’s designed to detect early warning indicators of flagging mental health.

“I don’t think there’s one thing” inflicting mental health issues in as we speak’s youth, Kaufman mentioned. It’s extra of a mix of many issues.

“Technology is certainly playing a role, especially with mobile phones and social media,” he mentioned. “Kids are reacting differently, and they are even more isolated.” Perhaps parenting kinds have modified, he added, or we’re consistently being inundated by information and notifications that trigger stress.

But, he thought, maybe there’s a method to make use of know-how to combat in opposition to among the issues it’s creating.

The Nika platform affords his method to deal with it. The system analyzes the digital exercise of an adolescent over time, equivalent to their textual content messages, search historical past and social media use for alerts that they could possibly be on the trail to a mental health problem.

The program analyses these actions throughout 30 variables which might be indicators of emotional, behavioral or bodily health.

These variables have been chosen after intensive analysis and consulting with advisers in the sector of kid psychology, Kaufman mentioned. One of them, for instance, is self-focused language. Nika may present development strains in how a lot self-focused language a teen is utilizing.

In principle, the platform may acknowledge detrimental conduct earlier than a mum or dad or perhaps a teen acknowledges it’s occurring. The platform may then join a mum or dad with suggestions on the best way to assist their youngster, and inform them the best way to method the topic. “So many parents say to me, “I don’t even know how to talk to my kid.”

Kaufman mentioned the objective is present them with the instruments that assist mother and father talk higher.

Not spying

Kaufman already is anticipating the pushback. The program feels like a teen’s worst nightmare. How many teens would relish the concept of their mother and father finding out their textual content messages?

But Nika wouldn’t let mother and father learn particular messages or actions. It solely reveals mother and father prime line trends and insights on what it sees occurring in the information. As Kaufman places it, this system is a development reader — not a thoughts reader.

“There are parental control hubs out there that let you spy on your kids. That’s not us,” he mentioned.

The firm’s onboarding course of engages each the mother and father and the youngsters for that reason as nicely.

“We get to know them,” he mentioned. “We talk to a lot of kids and say, ‘Here’s what it does and doesn’t do.’ Right now, your parents are looking at your phone. This thing won’t allow them to what they do right now.”

It takes a couple of weeks or months earlier than the machine studying in this system develops loads of its insights. But that doesn’t imply the human issue is eliminated.

“A human — someone trained in mental health — actually goes through (Nika’s) reports to train the machines,” he mentioned. But that evaluation additionally “helps humans see what’s going on with this kid and determine what should be conveyed to the parents.”

The platform continues to be in its testing interval. Fewer than 20 households are in its trial interval in the mean time, however the objective is to develop that to 100 households.

Since it’s such a small group, Kaufman didn’t wish to describe any particular outcomes which have emerged from the beta. But it already has been pulling useful insights.

Kaufman hopes youngsters will be taught to make use of it as a lot as their mother and father would possibly. He thinks if it could possibly be pitched as a Fitbit of types for mental health, extra individuals could be open to monitoring their very own passive conduct.

Just like we are able to rely our steps to trace health, maybe we may observe our habits for indicators of negativity.

You may have a look at the patterns and see, for instance, that you’ve turn into extra detrimental in the previous two weeks and that you just stopped doing an everyday bodily exercise. Perhaps that’s inflicting an issue.

“We want to point the patterns out to you,” Kaufman mentioned.

This story was produced with monetary assist from a coalition of companions led by Innovate Raleigh as a part of an unbiased journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial management of the work. Learn more; go to

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers know-how, startups and essential avenue companies, biotechnology, and training points associated to these areas.

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