Oura partners with UCSF to determine if its smart ring can help detect COVID-19 early

Startups continue to find new ways to contribute to ongoing efforts to fight the global spread of COVID-19 during the current global coronavirus pandemic, and personal health hardware-maker Oura is no exception. The smart ring startup is working with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on a new study to see if its device can help detect early physiological signs that might indicate the onset of COVID-19.

This study will include two parts: Around 2,000 frontline healthcare professionals will get Oura rings to wear during the study. The rings track a user’s body temperature continuously, as well as their sleep patterns, heart rate and activity levels. Fever is a common and early symptom that could indicate COVID-19, and a continuously updated body temperature reading could detect fever very early. That’s not enough to confirm a case of COVID-19, of course, but the purpose of the study is to determine whether the range of readings Oura’s ring tracks might, taken together and with other signals, be useful in some kind of early detection effort.

There’s good reason why researches believe that Oura could be used in early detection: An Oura user in Finland claims the ring alerted him to the fact that he was ill before he was displaying any overt symptoms of the virus, prompting him to get tested (relatively easy in that country). Test results confirmed that while asymptomatic, he had indeed contracted COVID-19. As a result, UCSF researcher Dr. Ashley Mason hypothesizes that the Oura ring could anticipate COVID-19 onset by as many as two to three days before the onset of more obvious symptoms, like coughing.

Being able to detect the presence of the virus in an individual early is key to global containment efforts, but even more important when it comes to frontline healthcare workers. The earlier a frontline responder is diagnosed, the less chance that they expose their colleagues or others they’re working around in close quarters.

In addition to the Oura rings being provided to study participants, the plan is to expand it to include Oura’s general user population, meaning its more than 150,000 global users can opt in to participate and add to the overall pool of available information with their ring’s readings and daily symptom surveys. For existing Oura users, it’s a relatively low-lift way to contribute to the global effort to combat the pandemic — without even leaving the house.

Kinsa’s fever map could show just how crucial it is to stay home to stop COVID-19 spread

Smart thermometer maker Kinsa has been working on building accurate, predictive models of how seasonal illnesses like the flu travel in and among communities — and its fever map is finding new utility as the novel coronavirus pandemic grows globally. While Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map has no way of tracking the spread of COVID-19 specifically, as it looks only at fevers tied to geographic data, it could provide easy-to-grasp early indicators of the positive effects of social distancing and isolation measures at the community level.

At the time that Kinsa’s health weather map was covered in the New York Times in February, the company had around a million thermometers in market in the U.S., but it had experienced a significant increase in order volume of as many as 10,000 units per day in the week prior to its publication. That means that the company’s analytics are based on a very large data set relative to the total U.S. population. Kinsa founder and CEO Inder Singh told me this allowed them to achieve an unprecedented level of accuracy and granularity in flu forecasting down to the community level, working in partnership with Oregon State University Assistant Professor Ben Dalziel.

“We showed that the core hypothesis for why I started the company is real — and the core hypothesis was you need real-time, medically accurate, geolocated data that’s taken from people who’ve just fallen ill to detect outbreaks and predict the spread of illness,” Singh said. “What we did with our data is we punched it into Ben’s existing, first-principle models on infectious disease spread. And we were able to show that on September 15, we could predict the entire rest of cold and flu season with hyper-accuracy in terms of the peaks and the valleys — all the way out to the rest of flu season, i.e. 20 weeks out on a hyperlocal basis.”

Prior to this, there have been efforts to track and predict flu transmission, but the “state-of-the-art” to date has been predictions at the national or multi-state level — even trends in individual states, let alone within communities, was out of reach. And in terms of lead time, the best achievable was essentially three weeks out, rather than multiple months, as is possible with Kinsa and Dalziel’s model.

Even without the extraordinary circumstances presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic, what Singh, Dalziel and Kinsa have been able to accomplish is a major step forward in tech-enabled seasonal illness tracking and mitigation. But Kinsa also turned on a feature of their health weather map called “atypical illness levels” a month ago, and that could prove an important leading indicator in shedding more light on the transmission of COVID-19 across the U.S. — and the impact of key mitigation strategies like social distancing.

“We’re taking our real-time illness signal, and we’re subtracting out the expectation,” Singh says, explaining how the new view works. “So what you’re left with is atypical illness. In other words, a cluster of fevers that you would not expect from normal cold and flu time. So, presumably, that is COVID-19; I cannot definitively say it’s COVID-19, but what I can say is that it’s an unusual outbreak. It could be an anomalous flu, a strain that’s totally unexpected. It could be something else, but at least a portion of that is almost certainly going to be COVID-19.”

The ‘atypical illness’ view of Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map. Red indicates much higher than expected levels of illness, as indicated by fever.

The graph represents the actual number of reported fevers, versus the expected number for the region (represented in blue) based on Kinsa’s accurate seasonal flu prediction model.

In the example above, Singh says that the spike in fevers coincides with reports of Miami residents and tourists ignoring guidance around recommended distancing. The steep drop-off, however, follows after more extreme measures, including beach closures and other isolation tactics were adopted in the area. Singh says that they’re regularly seeing that areas where residents are ignoring social distancing best practices are seeing spikes, and that as soon as those are implemented, via lock-downs and other measures, within five days of those aggressive actions, you begin to see downward dips in the curve.

Kinsa’s data has the advantage of being real-time and continually updated by its users. That provides it with a time advantage over other indicators, like the results of increased testing programs for COVID-19, in terms of providing some indication of the more immediate effects of social distancing and isolation strategies. One of the criticisms that has appeared relative to these tactics is that the numbers continue to grow for confirmed cases — but experts expect those cases to grow as we expand the availability of testing and identify new cases of community transmission, even though social distancing is having a positive impact.

As Singh pointed out, Kinsa’s data is strictly about fever-range temperatures, not confirmed COVID-19 cases. But fever is a key and early symptom of COVID-19 in those who are symptomatic, and Kinsa’s existing work on predicting the prevalence of fevers related to cold and flu strongly indicate that what we’re looking at is in fact, at least to a significant degree, COVID-19 spread.

While some have balked at other discussions around using location data to track the spread of the outbreak, Singh says that they’re only interested in two things: geographic coordinates and temperature. They don’t want any personal identification details that they can tie to either of those signals, so it truly an anonymous aggregation project.

“There is no possible way to reverse engineer a geographic signal to an individual — it’s not possible to do it,” he told me. “This is the right equation to both protect people’s privacy and expose the data that society and communities need.”

For the purposes of tracking atypical illness, Kinsa isn’t currently able to get quite as granular as it is with its standard observed illness map, because it requires a higher degree of sophistication. But the company is eager to expand its data set with additional thermometers in the market. The Kinsa hardware is already out of stock everywhere, as are most health-related devices, but Singh says they’re pressing ahead with suppliers on sourcing more despite increased component costs across the board. Singh is also eager to work with other smart thermometer makers, either by inputting their data into his model, or by making the Kinsa app compatible with any Bluetooth thermometer that uses the standard connection interface for wireless thermometer hardware.

Currently, Kinsa is working on evolving the atypical illness view to include things like a visual indicator of how fast illness levels are dropping, and how fast they should be dropping in order to effectively break the chain of transmission, as a way to further help inform the public on the impact of their own choices and actions. Despite the widespread agreement by health agencies, researchers and medical professionals, advice to stay home and separated from others definitely presents a challenge for everyone — especially when the official numbers released daily are so dire. Kinsa’s tracker should provide a ray of hope, and a clear sign that each individual contribution matters.

Oura raises $28 million for its health and sleep tracking ring

Smart rings are still a relatively young category in the wearable hardware world, but the Oura Ring seems to be a standout in terms of early success. The Oura Ring hardware is sleek and packed with sensors, allowing it to measure a user’s sleep patterns, take your body temperature and track activity, and now Oura has raised $28 million in Series B funding to bring on new key hires and product updates.

In a Medium post announcing the raise, Oura CEO Harpreet Singh Rai revealed that to date, the company has sold over 150,000 of its rings since launch (which was in early 2018) and that its team has grown to over 100 people globally. The Series B funding comes from Forerunner Ventures, which has a strong track record when it comes to direct-to-consumer product company investments, as well as from Gradient Ventures and Square.

Along with the investment, Oura gains two new board members, and one new board observer all with expertise in different aspects of the startup’s business: Forerunner’s Eurie Kim and Square’s hardware lead Jesse Dorogusker are the new board members, and Gradient partner (and former VP of engineering at Google) Anna Patterson joins as the observer.

Oura will be revamping its website and adding a new web-based portal for Oura Ring users that offers “actionable insights,” the company says, and it’s going to be doing more in terms of collaborating with academic researchers on ensuring its products measurements and guidance remain as accurate and useful as possible.

Oura prioritizes the role of sleep in terms of its contribution to health, and has also recently ventured into the realm of meditation, but it acts as a general fitness tracking device as well. It has attracted a number of fans among the plugged-in tech elite, too, including Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey. The company deserves kudos for delivering a solid, attractive and feature-rich gadget in a category that seemed like a tough sell in the early offing, and this new funding is a good vote of confidence.

ReMarkable’s redesigned e-paper tablet is more powerful and more papery

It’s no secret I’m a fan of the reMarkable, a tablet with a paper-like display that’s focused on text and sketching rather than rich media and games. The sequel to the original, announced today, looks to make a good thing even better.

Designed for the creation and consumption of monochromatic content like long documents, e-books, notes and sketches, the reMarkable set itself apart as a more minimalist alternative (or complement) to the likes of the iPad or Surface. The device was crowdfunded and has sold more than 100,000 units; meanwhile, the company has grown and attracted a $15 million A round. One sees in retrospect that the money helped launch this successor.

The most obvious change is to the design. It has a bold asymmetrical look with a chrome band along the left side, indicating the tablet’s main use as an alternative to a paper notebook: Hold it with your left hand and write with your right. Sorry, lefties.

The new tablet is just 4.7 mm (0.19 in) thick, thinner than the iPad Pro and Sony’s competing Digital Paper tablets, both of which are 5.9 mm. Let’s be honest — at these levels of thinness it’s getting hard to tell the difference, but it’s an accomplishment nevertheless.

Probably the best thing about the original reMarkable, however, was how good it felt to write and draw on, and the company has spent the last few years improving that wherever they can. For one thing, the already very small delay of about 40 ms between touching the screen with the stylus and a line appearing has been nearly cut in half.

That’s an area where every milli-unit counts. The lag on a real pen and paper is zero, of course, and while the reMarkable was good, there was still a very slight lag, especially when making large gestures or lines. As the company explained to me:

The hardware to further push the latency down further did not exist, so we decided to invent the technology ourselves. We redesigned both the hardware and software architecture that controls the display through a completely new display controller that changes how the display itself is electrically controlled, down to the voltages and electrical currents applied in complex waveforms to each individual pixel, millions at a time. The result is a 20ms latency, smoother ink flow with less jitter, and a completely uncontested digital writing experience perfected.

I intend to investigate this myself once I get my hands on one of the new devices. The company worked with E Ink, the main manufacturer and investor in e-paper type displays, to accomplish the new display, which has the same specs as the previous one otherwise: 10.3 inches, monochrome, 1872×1404 resolution for 226 DPI.

Here’s the inevitable, yet well-executed, aspirational promo video:

The software running on the reMarkable has received several major updates since the product made its debut, adding things like handwriting recognition, a new interface, better performance and so on. But one of the most requested features is finally coming with the new device: saving articles from the web.

Unfortunately they didn’t answer my specific request of adding Pocket integration, deciding instead to roll their own with a Chrome plugin that sends a reformatted web page to the device. Unfortunately I use Firefox, but I can make an exception for this.

The company is claiming a 3x boost to battery life, using the same 3,000 mAh battery, based on performance improvements throughout and a more efficient (but more powerful) dual-core ARM processor. That means two weeks of use and 90 days of standby. This is welcome news, because frankly the battery life and power management on the last one were not great.

Lastly, the “Marker” itself is getting an upgrade I’ve desperately wanted since the first day I tried the tablet: an eraser. You could always erase by selecting that tool, of course, but now one of the tips of the stylus will activate it automatically, a feature borrowed from Wacom and accomplished in collaboration with them. Of course, the eraser-enabled “Marker Plus” costs $99, $50 more than the plain one. They both stick onto the tablet via magnet, though.

“We’ve worked closely with Wacom the last two years to create Marker Plus, the most beautiful pen we have ever made,” reMarkable co-founder and CEO Magnus Wanberg told TechCrunch. “In addition to premium materials and design, it features an end-cap eraser that works seamlessly with the reMarkable software. We’ve fined-tuned the eraser sensor in collaboration with Wacom’s engineering team to make sure it looks and feels like just a real eraser on paper.”

But overall you’re looking at a much cheaper package. The reMarkable, for all its merits, was not cheap at $700. The reMarkable 2 will sell for $399 if you pre-order, and comes with a Marker and a nice folio case. For anyone who was on the fence about the first one, the sequel may prove irresistible.

YC-backed EduRev wants to democratize online learning in India

As edtech startups emerge and expand in India, millions of students in the country now have an additional option to choose from when they prepare for competitive exams.

But despite the proliferation of cheap Android handsets and availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans, online learning platforms in India are struggling to appeal to the masses because their offering is too expensive for many.

EduRev, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), thinks it can address this. The two-year-old startup offers an all-you-can watch catalog in a Netflix-esque fashion that costs between $20 to $50 a year — compared to anything between $300 to $4,000 that other platforms charge.

The startup has partnered with teachers around the country to make their classes — aimed at primary school to high-school and to students preparing for undergraduate-level course — available on the platform.

Students can come and consume some of this content — which includes notes, previous year exam papers, mock tests, and class videos — for no charge, but access to full-course and additional catalogs requires becoming a subscriber, explained Kunaal Satija, co-founder of EduRev, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Most of the classes in India are not efficient. The vast majority of students are not really learning much. There is also a severe lack of good teachers in the country. And if offline to online transition did not already have a learning curve attached to it, it is also expensive,” he said.

To replicate the traditional learning experience, EduRev also has a social aspect to it. Students can follow their friends and track their progress and participate in helping other students clear their doubts and pose their own questions. These features are available to non-paying users as well.

The price and wider-catalog availability, Satija said, has helped the startup gain millions of users. The platform has amassed over 450,000 monthly active users.

He declined to share how many paying users EduRev currently has, but said the startup has been operationally profitable for last four months.