Kinsa is the maker of the first FDA-cleared app-enabled thermometers. They launched their first product, the Smart Thermometer, on Indiegogo in 2013. Recently, they launched their second product, the Smart Ear Thermometer again on Indiegogo where they reached their funding goal in 24 hours. We sat down with founder Inder Singh to talk about his passion for changing health.
Kinsa makes award-winning, app-enabled thermometers. We do this to accomplish a broader mission—to create a real-time map of human health that will track and thereby stop the spread of disease. Kinsa started with that mission before we had a business model or even a product. I believe that stopping the spread of disease is the single biggest challenge in healthcare globally. Accomplishing it begins with better information about where and when disease is spreading.
Our mission is rooted in my experience in the public health sector. Most recently I was at the Clinton Foundation, where I was the Executive Vice President of the Clinton Health Access initiative and did work to improve access to lifesaving drugs and diagnostics for infectious diseases.
At Kinsa, we believe that consumer health products in the home should do two things: they should comfort and reassure you, and they should give you guidance about how to respond to a change in health status—they should help you get better when you are sick. Thermometer products and other consumer health products at home don’t do that today. Instead, they simply provide a number readout. A blood-pressure gauge provides a number, a thermometer provides a number—they don’t help you know what to do next. Our products do. We create connected products that do just that, starting with the most ubiquitous medical product in the world, the thermometer.
We kept asking, “How can we communicate with someone who’s just fallen ill to help them react and respond at their time of need, particularly helping parents respond to a child’s illness? Can we collect the data we need to map human health at the same time?”
The first device people use to confirm an illness is a thermometer, and that’s particularly true of parents whose children get sick. Children happen to be a primary spreader of illness—the schools they attend are a primary node of transmission for many diseases. A thermometer is the perfect device to engage with someone who has just fallen ill and is likely to spread the illness.
That’s how the app-enabled thermometer was born. It was a perfect entry point to communicating with ill people. With a smart thermometer we can help the individual and at the same time collect and aggregate data to inform the public health system and society about the broader spreading illness.
People ask us, “Why are you not making a wearable? Can’t you do temperature sensing on your wrist?” It comes back to our founding mission. My response is we probably could make a wearable one day, but there are all sorts of technical challenges, and more importantly, continuous monitoring of temperature is not a behavior that has been adopted in the world. The stick thermometer and ear thermometer together represent 90% of thermometers globally, so we made modern versions of those products that are already accepted and trusted. I want to decrease the risks around behaviour adoption because I need to get my product adopted in the world. My mission is about the spread of disease. My mission is not to revolutionize the form factor for thermometry. We can do that later.
It was three things.
While working at the Clinton Foundation, I became frustrated with how the world has so much information and yet almost zero information about the health situation around us. I remember sitting in a meeting with a major global health funder in Geneva. During this short period of time—the meeting was only a couple hours long—they were going to allocate more than $200 million to curbing, stopping and preventing the spread of an illness. The decisions were being made on a political basis, because the data just wasn’t there. One person stood up and said, “There are 280 million cases of malaria in the world.” The next person stood up and said, “There’s over a billion cases of malaria in the world.” The fact was, we didn’t know. We had no real-time data, no real understanding of the epidemiology. People cite all these data points, but the variance on those data points is very high. Our knowledge of what’s going on is very limited. Even if you have the tools, how do you curb, stop or prevent the spread of disease when you don’t know where and when it’s spreading? It was frustrating.
I was in this meeting and I had another meeting immediately after. I looked at Google Maps and it said, “It takes 15 minutes to get to your next meeting.” I realized in that moment that I was using real-time data to inform decisions in my life. How come I had data about traffic patterns, but I had zero when it came to this most important, intimate aspect of my life: the health situation around me? This was not the first time I noticed that the healthcare industry doesn’t do tech well—and the tech industry doesn’t do health well—but it certainly reaffirmed that. That was the first piece of the puzzle.
The second piece was about a year later when I fell severely ill. It started out with runny nose, cough, cold, fever—common symptoms at the beginning of many illnesses. I felt ill and I went to the doctor. He gave me antibiotics, they didn’t work. I went back, they gave me another round of antibiotics, they didn’t work. Eight days into it, I had a fever of 104 degrees and it had never dropped below 103.8 even though I was alternating Advil and Tylenol around the clock to keep my fever down.
I was a little delirious and I got a little worried. I used to get really sick because I traveled extensively. I was traveling in 35 developing countries as part of my work, but I hadn’t traveled in a while, and I thought, “I don’t have malaria, so what do I have?” I did what I think any reasonable person would have done: I went online. I searched on WebMD, but I also looked on Facebook and Twitter to see if any of my friends had similar symptoms. I kept thinking: “This has to be contagious. I got it from somebody. Maybe they can tell me how to get better.”
That was the second realization: we’re really in the dark ages when it comes to understanding the health situation around us, and it’s not just a problem for health systems trying to curb, stop, or prevent the spread of disease. It’s also a really big problem for the individual. At the time I didn’t have kids, but you can imagine how a parent would react. No matter how rich or powerful you are, when your small child falls ill, especially if you’re a first-time parent, you feel powerless. You just want to know what’s going around and how to respond. I realized that this is not just a societal, health-system problem, but a very personal one.
The third piece of the puzzle was meeting a brilliant technologist who had that very experience with his children. Every time his children fell ill, he thought to himself, “Do I need to go to the doctor or do I not? I’ll call doctor and ask, ‘What’s going around?’ If it’s strep throat going around, I’m coming in and getting that throat culture. If not, maybe I can hang out.” Together, he and I hatched Kinsa, this idea that we could create a better, smarter, cheaper version of a thermometer as a mechanism to communicate with the ill, and do it in a way that was responsible and created value for the user.
We hope that one day this is going to be not only a better, smarter version of a thermometer, but it’s going to be less expensive, so we can distribute it widely, help people in their time of need, and at the same time create a platform that collects illness information. And it’s already working. We’re getting all sorts of rich data, and we’ve created a product today that is not just about telling you your temperature. When your child falls ill, you don’t really care whether it’s 102 or 102.5, what you really care about is, “What do I do to get them better faster? How do I respond?” Those are the questions you care about, and our thermometer software features answer, or at least begin to answer, those questions.
At the same time, we’re collecting data not only on fever but on symptoms. People input their symptoms to understand their illness better, and in aggregate that allows us to track the spread of disease, identify epidemics early, and be the early warning system for the healthcare world. The mantra of public health and medicine is early detection and response, and we want to be that early detection system so that we can respond quickly and stop the spread of disease.
“There’s always the risk that if you don’t hit your campaign target, it’s going to be seen as a flop. ”
It was a difficult decision. Ultimately we decided to do it because, one, we had a great relationship with Indiegogo and they are huge advocates of ours. Two, we wanted to reward the people who helped us start the first product, and using the same platform was a good way to do that. The third thing for us was the philanthropic side of it. If we raised a good amount of money through Indiegogo, we could accelerate our philanthropic efforts of giving at least our first-generation thermometers away to more schools than we had in the past.
Last year we started a campaign called FLUency where we gave away thermometers to all families at 18 deserving schools, partly to get feedback. This year it was less about receiving feedback and more about the philanthropic side of it. Could we dramatically increase the number of schools? Could we do it to 100 schools or even more?
There are potential downsides to doing a second crowdfunding campaign. Your investors will ask, “Why?” and for a company that’s growing rapidly and succeeding, it’s also a public place to fail. There’s always the risk that if you don’t hit your campaign target, it’s going to be seen as a flop. That’s certainly something we thought about. But we hit our target in the first 24 hours. It was awesome. Now we’re going to go on to bigger and better targets that will advance the philanthropic side of our work, while accelerating some feature development along the way.
We are much further along in product development with the second campaign. People will get the product two months after the campaign is over, potentially even earlier. With the first product, we were about six to eight months out. I think one of the challenges with crowdfunding is the perception of its reliability has deteriorated a bit because a lot of campaigns never deliver product. We don’t want to fall into that problematic area. We want to deliver on time or ahead of time—get it out as quickly as possible. And all signs are showing us we’ll hit those goals.
“The key point here is that crowdfunding is not a great platform to tell the world about yourself; it’s a great platform to activate your networks, in order for them to tell the world about you.”
We knew a heck of a lot more launching our second campaign. The first time around, we had to learn that a successful crowdfunding campaign requires key elements to be in place in advance. The first time, our campaign was our launch. We literally announced the company as part of our crowdfunding campaign. We were in stealth mode right before that. Launching on a crowdfunding campaign is the wrong way to do it to be successful. You want to build momentum and build knowledge of your product amongst your core networks well in advance of the campaign. The pre-campaign is really about creating buzz. Then you open the floodgates during the campaign.
We used our second campaign as a mechanism to test some new ways of telling our story. Our first campaign was much more about the mission than it was about the product; this second time it’s much more about the product. We still talk about the mission, but we close with mission as opposed to opening with it. The key point here is that crowdfunding is not a great platform to tell the world about yourself; it’s a great platform to activate your networks, in order for them to tell the world about you. In order to do that, you have to have some buzz amongst your networks in advance.
There are rules of thumb that any of the crowdfunding platforms will tell you. If you have an audience reach of X number, certain percentages of them will convert, so the bigger your audience reach—the bigger your email list—the more successful you’ll be. If you don’t achieve a large portion of your goal—a third or a half—in the first two days, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed in the overall campaign. These are all the things we learned from our first campaign, so for our second campaign, we made sure to activate our networks well in advance, took advantage of telling them about the product, and then opened the floodgates that day.
Indiegogo is phenomenal. We are huge advocates of them and they’re great supporters of us. They’re really helpful in making sure you understand the do’s and don’ts. I would encourage anyone out there who’s planning to do a crowdfunding campaign to reach out to the platform well in advance, engage with them and learn from their knowledge because they’re happy to share best practices and how to be successful. I can’t speak enough about how supportive of us Indiegogo was and I’m grateful for that.
If you’re planning to dedicate your life to something, think about the problem that you’re most passionate about. Don’t start with a product. Don’t start with technology. Start with the problem, and think really carefully about whether you could dedicate your life to that, because that’s what it will take. We recently made a senior hire. It was a bit of a coup: we got him from a much larger, more established organization, so he passed up opportunities with them to be with us. He told me, “Inder, the reason I joined is because I really believe. I really believe that you’d die before you gave up on this.”
I’m committed to this. I’ve really only ever been part of mission-driven organizations. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to have an impact on the world. Connecting the dots between consumer product and grand mission, that’s hard. Releasing a product alone is hard. For consumer products, the failure rates are extremely high. I’ve heard that only one in twenty launches succeed. It’s risky, but if you surround yourself with people who really believe in the cause, you have a good shot. There’s that Margaret Mead quote that goes, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” If you fail in five to ten years, could you look back and be proud that you worked on that problem? If the answer is yes, go do it.
What’s your current state of mind?
When and where were you happiest?
On a beach with the mountains behind me and the water in front of me with my wife and dog.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Cutting my first deal at the Clinton Foundation, which dropped the price of malaria drugs for developing countries, and secured commitments for developing better versions.
What is your greatest fear?
Working myself too hard and not maintaining my health (as I am today).
What is your idea of misery?
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to read people’s minds.
What is your most treasured possession?
What’s your favorite quote?
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, for it’s the only thing that ever has”
We’ll be introducing new versions of thermometers. We have a second, improved version of our stick thermometer that will come out early next year. Right now, when you purchase our stick thermometer, there’s a 30 second setup process to make sure it’s giving you a really precise temperature reading. We’re going to eliminate that part so it improves the user experience. We are also going to introduce other versions of thermometers. That’s on the hardware side, but I think the really exciting part is the software: expanding the functionality in the app so we really start answering questions. What do I do? How do I get better?
The most recent thing we’ve done with the app is putting concrete fever guidance into it: “If your child is this age, has these symptoms, and a fever over X, you should do Y.” We’ll extend the user experience further early next year by allowing you to speak to your doctor via video in your time of need. If you need to talk to a doctor, we’ll connect you to someone right away. These are the kinds of things that we’ll continue to roll out over the next year or two to make sure that we are doing what we believe a household thermometer should do.