Verily's top mental-health scientist Thomas Insel departs for greener pastures

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Thomas Insel stepped down as director of the National Institute of Mental Health in 2015 to pursue mental-health projects at Verily.

Thomas Insel, who Verily—then Google Life Sciences—scooped up in 2015 to head its mental-health projects, has left the company. The neuroscientist is starting his own company, which aims to “digitally phenotype” mental illness.

Insel, the longtime director of the National Institute of Mental Health, stepped down from that post in September 2015. At the time, he was still ironing out the details of his new role at Verily, but said he would explore how technology can be used to detect, prevent and manage mental illness.

“The Google philosophy has been to seek a 10x impact on hard problems. I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health,” he said at the time.

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Since then, Verily has “conducted in-depth user studies with patients, providers and payors” and will work on “enabling greater access to a human-centered care experience that moves treatment decision-making from guesswork to data-driven precision.”

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While Verily has not yet unveiled any mental-health products, the company will soldier on in Insel’s absence. It’s unclear if he will be replaced.

CBS first reported Insel’s departure on Monday and Verily confirmed it in a blog post the same day. His is the latest in a string of departures, which include Vikram Bajaj, Verily’s former chief scientific officer who left for Grail, Illumina’s cancer liquid biopsy spinoff.

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Insel’s new company, Mindstrong, has a mission similar to Verily’s objectives in the mental health space. It will seek to determine a user’s state of mind by analyzing smartphone data, Nature reported. “Digital phenotyping” involves analyzing a user’s word choice while communicating with a smartphone and their voice patterns when talking to digital assistants.

“I felt like Verily was at a point where it was big enough and successful enough I could walk away,” Insel said to Nature. “I knew in moving to Verily it would be a transitional job until I could figure out what I really wanted to do, and I've had an entrepreneurial itch.”

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