When I met Karin Andrea Stephan, I had the impression I was speaking to a truly determined and pragmatic person. Her desire to contribute substantially to solving one of the greatest challenges of our time, making mental health measurable, was so tangible to me.
Two different aspects particularly intrigued me about Earkick: the possibility of getting the full version of the application for free, and Karin’s decision to leave an executive job to build a completely new and riskier chapter in her career. I really appreciate the last aspect because it is what I usually find in people who feel a kind of vocation in their life.
She was quick to point out: “Today there are many companies working on bridging the enormous gaps in the mental health journey. Some use stand-alone software, others a combination of software and hardware, etc… What really matters though, is to achieve the goal of finally empowering people to properly manage their mental health. And the first step is to make the omnipresence of current conditions visible and actionable through objective measurement. That’s what we do at Earkick.”
The underlying numbers of mental health issues are alarming; they suggest we are in a full crisis. Globally, about 1 out of 4 adults are affected by mental health issues, and the economic costs of mental disorders surpass those of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and respiratory diseases summed together. In companies, 75% of employees in the US report experiencing symptoms of burnout and they are 2.6 times more likely to leave the company.
- I couldn’t agree more with you Karin, and this made me particularly interested in learning more about your small but really promising Swiss-American Startup founded in 2021. How would you summarize the vision of your company?
Karin: “In a nutshell: Empower everybody to measure and improve mental health in real-time. We founded Earkick because we repeatedly witnessed close relatives, friends, and colleagues slip into mental health disorders without anyone noticing. Even before the pandemic, we realized how it can hit anyone of us anytime. When mental health disorders hide in plain sight, personal lives are tragically impacted. What’s worse, problems go unnoticed in a world where affected people still post happy photos on social media while on the brink of breakdown.”
- What are the boundaries of the problem you have been focusing on?
Karin:” When my co-founder and I dug into the wider question of mental health, it all pointed towards the importance of measurement. Without objective measurement, continuous monitoring and personalized feedback along an individual’s journey, support remains episodic, reactive, and unsustainable. The sentence ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’ kept revolving in our heads. It’s like wanting to keep a healthy weight, and having thousands of diets, but no scale to assess progress.
It’s unacceptable that the brain is still the only organ system that gets diagnosed based on subjective self-reported criteria. Traditional and even emerging solutions rely on self-reported, backward-looking data, which is like taking occasional ‘snapshots’ along a person’s journey but missing the whole story in between. This means that people – students, colleagues, employees – have to develop a significant intensity of symptoms or discomfort, to finally make them go seek support. Precious time elapses, and in the case of anxiety or depression the delay between the onset of a mental health condition and treatment amounts to 8+ years on average”.
- How does your digital solution contribute to overcoming this big challenge and what are its differentiating factors?
Karin: “We know that objective measurement and timely interactions can be solved with the support of technology, without putting more work on chronically overburdened mental health care professionals.
Our privacy-first app collects and automatically analyzes the users’ data, using cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to capture the mental health state and give real-time feedback to the user. Earkick makes it possible to measure mental health effortlessly from voice or video samples: All it takes is 10 seconds per day. Our unique machine-learning models can identify mental health risks such as depression, anxiety, burnout as well as many fine-grained emotions from data. This allows for continuous mental health monitoring and actionable, real-time interventions. Earkick’s algorithm needs fewer data and less time to provide results (existing solutions need 30s audio recordings in order to estimate GAD-7 and PHQ-9 scores and they require a silent environment). It works with typing, voice, or face and it works in noisy ‘real life’ environments. In terms of F1 score (>0.8) it is more accurate than any known state-of-the-art algorithms”.
- If you consider your solution within the entire health ecosystem, where would you place it? And what are the main benefits for all the involved stakeholders?
Karin: “Our solution can be placed in a wider ecosystem, including both clinical and nonclinical actors. Currently we’re developing our enterprise solution for workplace mental health and burnout prevention. From our research, we know that company leaders complain about the lack of granular and real-time information on the mental well-being trends of the workforce. Either they get macro data via anonymous surveys that are not actionable, or they run engagement and performance surveys that do not include mental health scores. With our solution companies can find out what works best for them, how much money they can save on resources that do not fit, and how they can achieve and maintain sustainable performance levels. We just ran a very successful trial with a company that mainly employs Gen Z folks and after just 14 days we were able to show them elaborate actionable data without disclosing any individuals.
But there are many other actors who could benefit and thus potentially adopt our solution:
- Schools and Colleges: 50% of mental health disorders emerge by age 14, 75% by age 24, and in the US there is no screening or standard measurement across institutions where the most vulnerable populations spend half their days at.
- GPs and mental health professionals, who are the first point of contact for people with physical symptoms belonging to mental health conditions: They could monitor the mental health trends of their patients and thus the efficacy of the assigned therapy.
- Prenatal/postnatal care centers: 10-20% of women develop issues that could be screened for during predictable times such as pregnancy.
- Pharmaceutical companies: They want to test the efficiency and efficacy of their products in settings such as continuous remote patient or remote therapist monitoring
- Health insurance companies: They are looking for ways to engage their clients in an effortless, rewarding, and insightful way.
- Thank you very much, Karin. Wishing you the best of luck as your offerings evolve, I have just one last question: what next steps and challenges do you foresee for your startup?
K:” We have built a highly rated app that is already helping tens of thousands of people around the world to better understand themselves. While our tech continues to empower everyone on an individual and organizational level, we are preparing to enter the regulated space and starting to run clinical trials as we speak.
Meanwhile, we are also successfully running pilots with several companies, rolling out professional mental readiness screening for teams, and creating partnerships with institutions that show great interest in our solution”.