May 13, 2022 – Amber Nigam, SM ’23 and Jie Sun, SM ’22, would like to help people living with diabetes feel like they’re living without it.
The two Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health students—both pursuing a master of science in health data science—co-founded a tech startup called basys.ai in order to create an easy-to-use app that diabetes patients can use to keep track of their blood glucose level, activities, diet, and other factors. The app uses a digital avatar to nudge people to adopt healthy habits to manage the disease.
“Instead of seeing boring lines and charts, the avatar is a human-like figure that keeps you motivated and engaged in your journey,” said Nigam. “You receive behavioral nudges from the avatar, such as ‘I notice this thing you’re eating is causing a spike in your blood sugar. Consider avoiding it or taking a smaller piece, or maybe get some exercise.’ If your objective is, for instance, not to take diabetes drugs any more, the avatar will tell you how far away you are from your goal.”
Using basys.ai’s patented artificial intelligence technology, the app provides precise and personalized recommendations. It translates clinical outcomes—like reducing the amount of blood sugar attached to hemoglobin—to more meaningful and relatable goals, like reducing medication or body fat. Patients can record most of their food and exercise data with the click of a button (or sync the information via a device such as a smartwatch), and can key in data from their glucose monitors. They can also connect with health coaches if the digital avatar can’t answer a particular query.
Nigam and Sun won a Spark grant from the Harvard Innovation Labs last November, an MIT Sandbox grant in February, and they were both in the winning team in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition’s Accelerate contest in March.
Nigam became interested in providing an easier way to manage diabetes after seeing his father, who died from COVID in 2020, struggle with the disease. “My dad had unmanaged diabetes for 25 years,” he said. “He wanted to have sweets but knew he couldn’t have them in front of me, so he would hide them. My mother and I would ask if he was checking his glucose, or we’d urge him to go for morning walks or do yoga or be active in some other way, but he didn’t listen much. We used to ask him to visit doctors but he had owned a pharmaceutical company in India and had spoken to doctors so much that he wasn’t interested. It was a very difficult situation.”
Through basys.ai, Nigam and Sun hope to help diabetic patients like Nigam’s father have more autonomy in managing their disease. “Instead of being told by other people that you should eat this or not eat that, by using our app people can make small adjustments, step by step, and feel that they are the ones in control,” said Sun. She added that the app can help reduce global inequities by helping people with minimal access to health care achieve a healthier lifestyle.
Sun, originally from Singapore and China, and Nigam, originally from India, brought a combined 17 years of experience in tech entrepreneurship and health care to their startup. The two connected in April 2020 via a Slack group for students in Harvard Chan School’s health data science program. Nigam asked his classmates if anyone was interested in starting a venture together—and Sun said yes.
The two have since put in long hours on their startup, often working in common spaces like Peet’s Coffee in Harvard Square (“we’ve been [there] so often that each staff there remembered our orders and names,” Sun blogged on March 17), and a lounge on the third floor of Child Hall, a Harvard dorm. Members of the Harvard community have been extremely supportive; team members now include fellow students from Harvard Chan School and the Graduate School of Design. In a March 31 blog, Sun noted, “Everyone in the dorm has been so welcoming to us from offering us … hot meals, brainstorming on our patent application, or just casually chatting with us.”
Sun and Nigam also credit support from Heather Mattie, co-director of Harvard Chan’s master’s program in health data science. Mattie is one of the people serving on basys.ai’s advisory board.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Amber and Jie,” Mattie said. “They are two of the most driven students who embody the collaborative spirit of our community and our commitment to making health care more accessible to all. They are leveraging the power of data, data science, and a diverse set of expertise to improve the chronic disease management journey for patients and their support systems.”
Nigam and Sun are partnering with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to refine their offering, and they’re working to generate interest in basys.ai among large employers who may want to use the app to improve the health of their employees. Eventually, the plan is to make the app available to the general public, and to expand it to address not just diabetes but other chronic conditions.
“Working on our venture had such a strong influence on our lives,” Sun wrote in the March 31 blog. “We would urge every student to consider taking the plunge.”
– Karen Feldscher
photos: Kent Dayton