The Boston-based company, which was founded in 2015, has raised $19 million for its technology that uses brief voice recordings to reveal the progression of health conditions. On Thursday, Sonde announced a new partnership with chip manufacturing giant Qualcomm that could potentially bring the technology to millions of smartphones, which could prove a crucial test of whether its tech is ready for prime time.
Sonde’s technology – based on more than 1 million voice samples from 80,000 people – uses subtle characteristics of voice collected for this purpose to determine that you may have a medical condition. It claims the technology can be used to detect symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and COVID-19, as well as characteristics of what it calls “mental fitness”.
Sonde’s new partnership could help the startup reach a far broader audience by integrating its technology directly into Qualcomm 888 and 778 5G chips that will be used in mid-range and top-tier phones from leading manufacturers toward the end of this year and in 2022. Several devices using the 888, including phones from Samsung and Sony, have already shipped, and Sonde’s capability will be available to them as well. The recently announced 888+ will also have Sonde capabilities when released.
Sonde CEO David Liu predicts that as smartphone makers continue to compete on features, health technologies will become an important differentiator.
“I think it’s going to be conspicuous in its absence, rather than you have one manufacturer that has all these great innovations in health protection [and] monitoring,” he told STAT.
It’ll be up to phone manufacturers like Samsung to decide if they want to tap into Sonde’s technology – for a price – and how they want to use it. If phone makers choose to buy in, users will be able to have their voices analyzed through a baked-in feature already installed in the phone.
How the tool is used – including whether it takes a one-time reading or collects samples in the background without needing to be activated – will depend on manufacturer preferences. Any implementation would require a user to opt-in and the company says data will not be sent to third parties.
Though smartphones are the most obvious application of the tech, Liu suggests such integration could easily make its way to in-car information systems, smart speakers, and other household devices that Qualcomm powers.
One smartphone maker that won’t take up the Sonde technology anytime soon: Apple, which develops its own chips. But Liu points out how the tech giant is removing some of the roadblocks that have long hampered advanced voice-based technologies. At the Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple announced that its voice-activated assistant Siri will process speech entirely on devices, allowing many requests to be completed without access to the internet, cutting out the cloud connection currently needed for even basic Siri queries.
On-device processing could speed up the analysis of voice recordings and helps ensure the privacy of the captured data, which has long been a concern around voice-controlled features. Removing friction from the experience, Liu argued, could open the door for wider adoption of the vocal technologies like the biomarker system Sonde has been developing and illustrates the potential value of building its tech natively into smartphones.
“What it means is that throughout the day, as you speak into the phone for Siri or for whatever you use your voice, your smartphone turns into a fitness tracker via voice,” said Liu. “You’re basically able to use your smartphone as if it were your Apple Watch, as if it were your Fitbit wristband, as if it was your Oura ring. But you don’t need those devices. That is to me, the biggest game changer that [on-device] processing allows.”
Beyond its ambitions to sell to phone manufacturers, Sonde will soon detail a consumer app that allows users to track the progression of their mental fitness. Sonde has also created tools so that third-party mental health apps can easily incorporate its biomarkers to track how well treatments are working. The company has explored using its biomarkers to help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs. It says it has16 partners using its technology.
As it aims to stand out, Sonde’s integration with Qualcomm chips provides a high-profile partner that could boost its reach. Qualcomm will soon begin marketing the tech to manufacturers who are anxious to stay ahead of Apple, which, given its focus on health and voice, may also have a similar feature in the offing.