How can you stop an outbreak before it becomes an epidemic? How do you know when and where symptoms start?
For Inder Singh MPP 2004, these questions are not rhetorical. He had seen, through his job at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, how expanding access to drugs could help millions of people with HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases—but he was frustrated that no one was collecting data that would allow society to prevent and even predict their spread.
“Kinsa was born out of that experience,” says Singh, referring to the company he founded in 2012—a company that continues to amass a vast trove of data that, through machine learning and advanced analytics, identifies hotspots of disease, predicts their spread, and forecasts the impact of infectious illnesses on the health system, such as surges in emergency department visits and where and when the stock of crucial medications may run low. It does this using one of the most common diagnostic tools available: a thermometer—which, says Singh, is “one of the only products that exists in the home that you can use to confirm illness.”
To Singh, the thermometer was always a means to an end. The company’s thermometers are unique because they connect to an app via Bluetooth to guide users to better care and treatment in the moment. With customer consent, the app then transmits the anonymized data, including temperature and self-reported symptoms, back to the company, which then aggregates and analyzes the information.
Says Singh, “We had to get years of data to see a pattern, in order to extrapolate. Only then could we truly say, ‘Yes, we can predict outbreaks.’ Shortly after we developed some amazing forecasting models, the COVID pandemic hit. And that’s when healthweather.us was born.”
Using just a ZIP code entered by users, this website provides a snapshot of the risk for flu, COVID, stomach bugs, and colds and other illnesses in a specific area. “The pandemic became a huge proof point in that not only could we predict seasonal illnesses like colds and flu, but we could detect a novel, anomalous illness well before other systems could,” Singh says.
With its temperature and symptom data, Kinsa was able to spot COVID outbreaks weeks before health authorities could do so using other, more traditional metrics such as hospitalizations. And unlike systems that monitor wastewater to track known pathogens, Kinsa can identify surges of illnesses that may be caused by viruses not yet on health authorities’ radar.
In addition to selling its thermometers, Kinsa has to date distributed more than 500,000 thermometers free to students in school districts from New York to Sacramento through its FLUency School Health Program. In total, approximately 2.5 million households in the United States use a Kinsa thermometer—and Singh is working to expand the company globally.
He notes that Kinsa is essentially creating a new market for outbreak analytics. The next step, he says, is to ensure that this novel market is widely accepted across all sectors. “We’ve got very good scale in the U.S.—and if we can accomplish that in other areas in the world, we’ll have a global network. And if you have that global network, where you’re informing people about what’s going on and supporting the institutions that can actually respond, you now have a global early-warning system. And that’s the dream.”
For his work on improving public health through the innovative use of technology, Singh is the 2023 recipient of the Digital Innovation Award.
Photography provided by Inder Singh.