Litesprite had the vision years ago to use a mobile video game to help treat patients with problems such as stress, anxiety, or depression. And it only seems like there’s more and more demand for something that can treat these problems, which afflict as many as 40 million Americans.
And that’s a reason that Bayer, the big pharmaceutical giant, selected Seattle-based Litesprite as one of a handful of startups from a field of 750 to go through an accelerator camp in Berlin. Litesprite is taking part in Bayer’s G4A Growth Partnership Track, a competitive program to create novel digital health solutions.
Starting in 2012, Litesprite created a game called Sinasprite, which used a fox character named Socks to go on journeys through an animated world. In contrast to many action games, the journeys that Socks takes players on are soothing or relaxing. Swatee Surve, CEO of Litesprite, told me in an interview that her company has become better at measuring the impact of the game on the behavior and health of its players.
“We look at the results for depression, anxiety, and then improvements in coping skills,” she added. “We are talking about the importance of digital therapeutics and how it can really start to improve patient lives. You have a 150-year-old pharma company seeing the value of digital interventions, with a focus on gaming. That is pretty pretty significant.”
Running on a smartphone, Litesprite’s Sinasprite game monitors players using input from biosensors, wearables, and mobile devices. It captures the patient data and provides it to clinicians so they can see what strategies are working. This kind of game is part of the games for health movement. Jane McGonigal, a famous game designer and speaker, has a new book called Superbetter that chronicles her efforts to improve the lives of people by challenging them with games.
Bayer made a small investment in Litesprite and it is putting the company through its accelerator training in Berlin, with the hope of producing a product after graduation.
In the past, Litesprite raised money from South by Southwest, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Singularity University, and the Livestrong Foundation. It also has had in-kind support from the U.S. Army.
In the Bayer program, Litesprite was chosen for the digital therapeutic and integrated care ventures challenge areas. If all goes well, the G4A Growth Track offers a gateway for Litesprite to partner with Bayer in the digital health space. Bayer does not have a mental health treatment on the market.
“Gamification in healthcare is not something new, but with clinical focus of the amazing team and the advent of digital therapeutics around clinically validated and reimbursable solutions for behavior change, Litesprite is a great startup partner of choice,” said Eugene Borukhovich, head of digital health at Bayer, in a statement.
Last year, Litesprite won the Trails startup competition hosted by healthcare innovation hub Cambia Grove. That was one of a number of health innovation awards that Litesprite has earned. Surve sees the Bayer program as a validation for a long journey.
“Back then, there was very little in the way of any sort of activity in mental health and it just kind of exploded since then,” Surve said. “That shows the foresight that we had in terms of gaming. Now there are a number of digital health gaming apps in the works.”
It wasn’t easy to get through the Bayer process.
“What was really interesting about this one is that they add a final round where the finalists were picked by patients,” Surve sai. “We made it past that final selection by 20 patients.”
The company’s product was tested by the U.S. Army. To date, more than 600 patients have been tracked with clinical data since 2014. Since that time, the game has gone through a user interface upgrade.
“We were the first video game to get that and subsequently we had a publication of our clinical results in a peer-reviewed journal,” Surve said. “With another program, we created an economic impact report. So what would the economic impact be of our clinical results? What’s the return on investment? How much could providers save in costs? We have been able to demonstrate real-world evidence of clinical improvement.”
The app is being used with patients who have chronic physical conditions.
“There is a high correlation between a physical problem and then having anxiety and depression with a chronic condition, which kind of makes sense,” Surve said. “If you have cancer, you’re going to be anxious or depressed. So, typically, if you’re addressing mental health, you can also help other physical ailments. One of the things that patients have told us is about this loss of control that they feel in that environment. And so creating an experience that they can control guide and direct and they feel empowered about addresses their emotional needs.”
The company estimated that for every one million people with access to Sinasprite, the game can reduce costs by $18 million a year. Surve hopes that the game will eventually reach millions of people.
“We want to help millions of people, and we want to do it with a game,” Surve said.