Koko, an MIT Spinoff, Is Building Stack Overflow For Depression

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Robert Morris, an MIT PhD candidate, recently concluded a dissertation study testing the clinical benefit that depression patients might experience if enrolled in a new program that merges the social media aspects of Facebook with the crowdsourced problem-solving aspects of websites like Stack Overflow. Prior to enrolling in MIT’s PhD program, Morris studied psychology at Princeton. He had no computer programming experience when he arrived at MIT, but when he began studying at MIT, he found that his peers were all incredibly talented programmers and would create simple platforms to test their hypothesis, rather than design complex studies. Morris wanted to develop solutions to help the mental health community, but his lack of programming knowledge was hindering his progress. Then, Morris discovered Stack Overflow, a  free crowdsourced Q&A website where programmers help other programmers work through technical problems. Morris thought that if a website existed to help people through technical problems like programming, there may be value in a website that helps people through emotional problems in much the same way.

To test his theory, with the help of Stack Overflow, Morris developed a prototype of his platform and enrolled 166 depression patients to begin using it. The website allows users to post a synopsis of their problem, and then peers weigh in with different perspectives and potential solutions. An up-vote system helps cull the great answers from the rest, and clinical coaches are active on the site to ensure that recommendations are supported by proven cognitive therapy practices. In early testing, users reported having a better experience on the platform than on any of the other software-based mental health support systems that were tested.

Now, Morris is taking the lessons he learned during the pilot and, again with help from Stack Overflow, is building an iOS app that he hopes to launch to the general public this fall. Called Koko, the app will apply the same crowdsourced problem solving techniques employed by Stack Overflow, but instead of programmers responding to each others’ concerns, the platform will market toward people with depression and clinical councilors. As an early-stage startup, Morris is focusing his efforts on building the new platform, and admits that he has no monetization strategy for it once its launched, but with a booming digital health market heating up, and mental health disorders accounting for $57 billion in health spending annually, if his app can demonstrate a positive impact on patients, he should have no problem lining up health systems and payors interested in rolling it out.


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