Automotive Engineering alum Bhargav Sri Prakash draws inspiration for his Digital Vaccine from a former University of Michigan research fellow and School of Public Health faculty member: Jonas Salk. When asked about a patent for the polio vaccine, Salk replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
“He [Salk] has always been an inspiration to me,” Sri Prakash said. “He didn’t invent the polio vaccine for private equity investors; he gave it away for free.”
Featured by Carnegie Mellon University as one of the top technological breakthroughs of 2018, Sri Prakash describes the Digital Vaccine as “a clinically-proven neurocognitive training and neuromodulation platform to reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and certain types of cancer, filling the need for a clinically proven and personalized health education curriculum.”
“The protocol will randomly assign a patient, or student, to a control treatment. The ‘treatment’ group will receive the gamified health education intervention, while the ‘control’ group will receive another activity. Both groups will be monitored for outcomes, just like a standard clinical trial,” he explained, describing the randomized-controlled trial design that his team has undertaken as part of creating a body of science through clinical research protocol.
Sri Prakash began to think deeply about the health of future generations nine years ago, when his first daughter was born. He realized his iPhone could act as a pacifier for his child, allowing him and his wife to take her on flights and car rides without a fuss.
“Kids are hard-wired to use smartphones,” he said. “Smartphones are tactile and interactive, and kids are able to swipe and unlock the phone before they can even talk.”
The convenience was undeniable, but Sri Prakash soon realized the targeted ads his daughter received through the smartphone were more effective than he knew. He recalls driving on I-94 between Ann Arbor and Chicago, his daughter watching Dora in the backseat. After each episode was a commercial for an unhealthy food or beverage—Coca-Cola, McDonald’s Happy Meals, Capri Sun, General Mills cereal, Sunkist juice.
“I thought she was too young to understand, but I was mistaken. One day, we were grocery shopping, and she spotted a cereal box with Dora’s face on it. It’d been strategically placed at her eye level, of course, and contained cinnamon stars with high-fructose corn syrup. I tried to distract her, but she started having a tantrum in the middle of the store, so I picked her up and bought the box, which had a plastic Dora toy inside,” he said.
“After that, traditional Indian breakfast food just could not compete. Those flavor-enhancers and artificial colors—incandescent pinks, greens, and blues—those became her standard, and without them, she wouldn’t eat breakfast.”
Shortly after the cereal incident, Sri Prakash received an invitation to work with the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. The foundation focuses on entrepreneurship for social change, which he took as a sign. He decided to take a sabbatical from his finance job to explore the opportunity.
In Kansas City, Sri Prakash was introduced to Dr. Amanda Bruce of Kansas Medical Center’s Children’s Mercy Hospital. Bruce was studying the impact of brand advertising on children’s preferences using fMRI data. It was then that Sri Prakash became aware of the ways certain brain regions could be monitored to detect the effects of ads on children’s decision-making.
“We realized we could simulate the experiment with virtual reality on a mobile device, which made it very accessible,” Sri Prakash continued. “We started doing clinical trials, and I understood that the need of the hour wasn’t just nutrition education. Additionally, we needed to assess medical outcomes to assure that our work was ethically validated and actually built upon rigorous science, as well as evidence that our innovation was protecting children’s health.”
Partnering first with Baylor Medical College and later with Stanford University, Kaiser Permanente, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, and the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Sri Prakash and his new company—FriendsLearn—began to conduct randomized-controlled trials.
“After the first trial, we found that kids who received the vaccine for about an hour made healthier choices in the cafeteria, gravitating towards fresh fruits and vegetables. We knew then that we could create something proven—like a vaccine, only digital.”
Since then, Sri Prakash and his team have conducted longitudinal studies, which track whether repeated exposures to the Digital Vaccine lead to sustained behaviors and habits. Through their institutional partnerships, they’ve also run trials assessing the impact of the vaccine on cancer biomarkers and blood sugar levels.
Now housed in an app-based platform called Fooya available for Android and iOS devices, the Digital Vaccine marks a new frontier for disease prevention through technology. Sri Prakash and his company are still shaping the meaning of Digital Vaccines, as well as the emerging medical category known as Digital Therapeutics, borne out of the increasing convergence of technology and medicine.
“In today’s world, there are so many profiteers who make money off of sickness. We’re opposing that mindset and trying our best to account for the health of future generations. Vaccines, in general, are a bright spot in modern medicine. Inspired by Salk, we have already made the clinically-proven Digital Vaccine platform available for free,” Sri Prakash said.
“Our long-term goal is not only to prevent or treat a wide range of pathologies, but also to have advanced therapeutic modules based on our platform which can be administered to patients by clinicians. We envision a reimbursable model covered by insurance service providers and governments through which we can sustain further innovation of our Digital Vaccine pipeline to ensure we’re driving impact around the world.”