From senior care to pharma, new speech-analyzer tool addresses gaps, meets needs

By Dianne Daniel

It begins with small mistakes. People forget their medication, miss an appointment or have trouble managing their diabetes. Eventually the errors compound and for many older adults, even slight cognitive impairment leads to a negative health outcome.

This is the scenario Winterlight Labs is aiming to prevent with its newest pilot project. Partnering with VHA Home HealthCare, the company is testing its proprietary natural speech analyzer with 50 Ontario seniors throughout 2019. The goal is to refine the tool’s effectiveness as a clinical decision support tool.

“We’re addressing a gap in the market,” says Winterlight Labs CEO Liam Kaufman. “When someone has a diagnosis of dementia, we know they need help managing their health care. But if they are only slightly cognitively impaired, they often fall through the cracks.”

Winterlight Labs’ assessment is quick and easy to administer. Seniors spend two to four minutes describing pictures on an iPad. The platform uses artificial intelligence to extract and analyze more than 540 linguistic cues from their recorded speech, accurately distinguishing early signs of dementia from typical aging. If early cognitive impairment is detected, additional home care or other supports can be provided to pre-empt an adverse health event.

The goal is to have a commercial product ready for the senior care market by early 2020, says Kaufman. In the meantime, the AGE-WELL-supported startup is making strong inroads in the pharmaceutical sector. “By using our platform in early validation studies, they’re able to see effects in a shorter time period on smaller populations,” explains Kaufman.

In 2019, Winterlight Labs entered a collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. to collect objective, quantifiable physiological and behavioural data—referred to as a digital biomarker—so that people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease can be identified, before symptoms appear and when therapies have the most benefit. The company’s speech analyzer is also being used in several U.S. clinical trials to examine the efficacy of new drug therapies to treat forms of dementia.

“This is an important growth milestone for us, but we couldn’t have arrived here without the early-on investment from supporters like AGE-WELL,” says Kaufman, noting that some pharmaceutical deals have reached $500,000. AGE-WELL is a federally-funded Network of Centres of Excellence.

In November 2019, Winterlight Labs announced that it had raised $5.6-million in series A funding in a round led by Hikma Ventures.

Founded in 2015 by Kaufman, scientific advisor Dr. Frank Rudzicz and CTO Maria Yancheva, Winterlight Labs has grown to 12 full-time employees with more hires expected before the end of 2019. Operating out of JLABS in Toronto, the company is also supported by the Ontario Brain Institute, Ontario Centres of Excellence and the University of Toronto.

Dianne Daniel is a freelance writer based in Niagara Falls, Ont.