Beaverton Basement Launches App Like Fitbit For Your Brain

Jul 13, 2019
Originally published on July 15, 2019 7:35 am

Basements can be pretty dingy places, with 1970s wood paneling and ping-pong tables. But not this Beaverton basement, where a group of six full-time entrepreneurs has just launched a new app.

There's a wet bar, recessed lighting and laminate floors, as befits a startup that’s built an app to get people to think about how they feel and maybe improve their moods.

You can think of the app as a Fitbit for the brain.

Called Mindcurrent, it asks the user a few questions, like how they’re feeling. The user then indicates they’re stressed, or happy, or depressed, and the app offers short advice videos.

The app can also be tweaked to suit a user’s unique circumstances.

For example, the app tailors advice differently for a parent and a teenager.

At first glance, it’s hard to know how to take the app: Is it for fun or offering serious advice? And if it is serious, the question is: Is this treatment?

It’s an issue that makes the chair of the Oregon Board of Psychology, Cliff Johannsen, a little nervous. He said the rules about treating people are clear.

“A layperson is free to give any kind of advice that they’d like, as long as they’re not diagnosing and treating mental disorders,” Johannsen said.

He said it’s not a good idea to rely on an app if a user is seriously depressed or otherwise struggling with significant mental health problems.

Johannsen is aware of similar apps that offer psychological advice and he warns the public to be aware of the ones that make superlative claims.

At OPB’s request, he looked at the Mindcurrent website and said he’d have liked more information on the qualifications of some contributors.

But he didn’t want to comment on any benefit or problem Mindcurrent may have — in case the company ends up in front of the board.

“So a complaint would have to be lodged with the Board of Psychology and then it would be investigated and brought to the board for a decision. So I can’t preempt that process,” Johannsen said.

If there were a complaint, the board could insist Mindcurrent’s experts stop contributing to the app, or it could even impose a fine.

But chief psychology officer Drew Brazier said this is a bright line for the company. They offer advice, not treatment.

“This should not be used to replace therapy or anyone seeing a medical professional … nor are we trying to pretend that,” Brazier said.

Brazier has been a licensed psychologist in Colorado and Idaho. But he isn’t currently licensed in Oregon.

Mindcurrent co-founder Sourabh Kothari, said that’s not necessary, because Brazier is not doing clinical work.

Kothari said there’s also no practical way for the app to offer “treatment” in a way that would be regulated under state or local laws. Kothari said eventually the app might rely on dozens of experts, offering advice from all over the world. So they couldn’t all be licensed everywhere.

Kothari is a former Wall Street investor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He got the idea for the app from his family.

“My daughter had started kindergarten. She was bored. But there was no way for the teacher to know when she was bored and how to re-engage her,” he said.

Rather than develop an app to see how a child is feeling at school, he widened the idea to see how people feel in general.

Kothari said he decided to move to Oregon to develop the app because it’s cheaper than Silicon Valley, there’s plenty of tech-savvy workers, and Oregonians seem open to mental health improvement.

“It is somewhat unique. Every person we’ve met in Portland wants to learn more about themselves, to have a better life. And they’re willing to use technology, but they’re not consumed by it. I don’t think people in Portland realize how rare that is,” Kothari said.

He calls them “bio-curious.”

Install the app on a smart watch and it can gather biometric information, like a heartbeat. But Kothari said on a phone, the app is reliant on data the user taps in.

“You can add your calendar, analyze all [your] meetings and how frequently they happen and where am I actually getting stressed. The thing you’re actually trying to analyze is: ‘Who’s stressing me?’” Kothari said.

Kothari hopes the app will give users insight into their own lives. And maybe in the future they could use it to track their mood and then send that information to their therapist, who in turn could use it to inform treatment options.

Kothari said he’s spent less than $1 million and has several thousand users since the app launched in June. He said the plan is not to grow it then sell to Nike or Kaiser Permanente. Instead he wants to make money by having users buy longer, in-depth videos, like how to deal with a teenage child.

Meanwhile, the company is recruiting scores of psychology students at the University of Texas. The plan is for the students to download the app and provide information about how they’re feeling a dozen times a day over six weeks. That way Mindcurrent hopes to see if the students become more self-aware and, maybe, happier.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.