SAN FRANCISCO - When a child feels sick, one of the first things a parent does is reach for a thermometer.
That common act intrigued Inder Singh, a long-time health policy expert.
What if the thermometer could be a communication device – connecting people with information about illnesses going around and gathering real time data on diseases as they spread?
That’s the idea behind Singh’s firm Kinsa, a health data company based in San Francisco that sells “smart” thermometers.
Worst flu season in years
With the U.S. in the midst of its worst flu season in years, Kinsa has been on the forefront of tracking the spread and severity of flu-like symptoms by region.
The company says its data is a close match to flu data tracked by the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whereas the CDC collects from state and regional reports, Kinsa can spot fever spikes in regions or even by cities, said Singh.
Fast and accurate information about how disease is spreading can make a difference during a health crisis.
“If you knew when and where a disease was starting, you could target the people who needed the treatment and potentially prevent pandemics and epidemics from occurring,” said Singh, founder and chief executive of Kinsa.
How it works
Kinsa thermometers, which range in price from $14.99 to $49.99, connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which pose questions about a person’s symptoms. The customer’s personal information is private, the firm said.
With its thermometers in 500,000 households, Kinsa receives 25,000 temperature readings per day.
The company can’t diagnose illnesses or distinguish between different kinds of sicknesses. But from gathering information about individuals’ fevers and other symptoms, it can report where flu-like symptoms are peaking. In recent weeks, Missouri and Kansas have been the hardest hit, Kinsa said.
Selling aggregated data
Beyond selling thermometers and advertising on its app, Kinsa makes money by selling data - stripped of any personally identifiable information - to companies that want to know where and how illness is spreading - cough and cold companies, disinfectant manufacturers, orange juice sellers. Sales of toothbrushes spike during flu season, Singh says.
Companies “want to know when and where illness is striking on a general geolocation basis,” he said. Firms stock shelves with products and change marketing plans if they know how an illness is progressing.
Kinsa has launched a program in schools, where it gives away thermometers, so parents can learn about illness trends locally. The company is also starting a new initiative with some U.S. firms, which buy Kinsa thermometers for their employees. When an employee shows a fever, Kinsa can inform the person about available company benefits.
At the moment, Kinsa thermometers are sold just in the U.S. But the company plans to go global.
“Imagine a living breathing map where you can see where and when disease is spreading,” Singh said. “That’s what we want.”