Introducing håp: a self-tracking app that fosters human connection

I posted this originally on the projecthap blog. I am reposting it here because it’s a big deal for me personally to have a beta version of our first product out. I love getting the first feedback on what we’ve built, it never gets old!

Three months ago I left my job in a big tech company to set up Flourish Labs, a purpose-driven startup using cutting edge mental health science and technology to foster good mental health. Our mission: Flourishing minds for all, starting with students.

Today we’re launching the beta version of håp, an app that helps you understand the ups and downs of your mind. håp is for everyone, whether you are flourishing or languishing right now. It’s using technology that you likely have with you at all times: a smartphone and a wearable device.  

håp empowers you with your data to help you gain more emotional self-awareness.

The håp app encourages you to regularly check in with your feelings, your mood and other factors such as your motivation, sleep, mental focus and social interactions.

Think of a håp ‘Check-in’ as a twice daily activity, just like brushing your teeth. It only takes about a minute (and you could probably do it while you are brushing your teeth if you’re pressed for time).

You can instantly view your data in easy to understand reports, charting how the factors that affect your mental health and wellbeing change over time. 

Unlike simple mood diary apps, håp can also integrate your sleep, activity and heart rate data if you have a wearable and choose to connect it to håp. This is optional; you can use håp with just a smartphone. We currently support Fitbit and Oura, and will add more wearables soon.

You control what you share with håp. håp empowers you with your data to help you gain more emotional self-awareness.

håp brings you human connection when it’s most important for you.

In addition to self-tracking, håp is being designed to foster support from others. During 18 months of lockdowns and physical distancing from friends, extended family and co-workers, we have all experienced how vital human connection is for good mental health.

In the beta version released today, håp gives you instant access to free, 24/7 crisis support. With the tap of a button or by texting HAP to 741741, you can text with a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.

You can also view mental health and wellbeing tips and resources from Active Minds.

If you are a student at one of our pilot colleges, the app will show you mental health and wellbeing resources that are available on your campus. 

Soon, håp will allow you to share some of your data with a small number of people of your choosing. These could be friends, family or others in the håp community who want to support you. Unlike anonymous peer support platforms, håp facilitates ongoing connections with people you know and trust. håp reduces the burden of reaching out to get or give help by notifying your supporters, and encouraging them to get in touch when it looks like you might need it. Or if you’re doing well at the moment, the håp support notification might just serve as a reminder that they haven’t caught up with you in a while and it’s time for a chat.

You control who you share with. håp brings you human connection when it’s most important for you.

håp is being built with students, for students.

College students are our first audience for håp. During our pilot, håp is available only via our partners or by referral. 

håp, like all of us, is a work in progress.  We’re releasing it as a beta app today because we want to get early feedback from students and colleges on what we’ve built so far, and get input on the parts we’re building next. 

If you are a student, you can get early access to håp and help håp get better by joining our Trusted Tester program. We have a limited number of slots, so please bear with us if we don’t get back to you straight away.

Each screen of the app has a ‘feedback’ icon on it. For each app release, we will share how we’ve addressed feedback from testers, so you get to see how you are helping to improve håp first hand. 

Bring håp to your college.

We are inviting a small number of colleges to actively take part in our pilot during the 2021/22 academic year. We are looking for innovators who want to offer the opportunity to their students and staff to test and help evolve the product. We’d especially love to work with community colleges and HBCUs.

If you are a student, you can bring håp to your college as a håp Ambassador.

If you are faculty or staff, please get in touch to explore how we could include your college in our pilot

Project håp is a collaboration between a tech startup, nonprofits and academics.

We have come together to work on håp because we share a vision of a future where more people flourish in a world of good mental health and wellbeing. 

Flourish Labs is a purpose-driven technology startup building the app and technology platform with a small but mighty team and the help of a multi-faceted advisory board. 

Active Minds is the leading nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. Led by founder Alison Malmon, they are our co-design and outreach partner.

Youth Era is a global leader in empowering young people and creating breakthroughs in the systems that serve them. Through peer support and technology, Youth Era equips young people with tools to help themselves and their peers. They are designing a bespoke training program for håp members who want to become supporters.

Crisis Text Line provides free, high quality crisis support through text messaging. Trained, compassionate Crisis Text Line crisis counselors are available 24/7 for any crisis, not just suicide.

Stanford professor Dr. Manpreet Singh will lead an independent research study on håp. Each part of håp is grounded in evidence, but our combination of self-tracking and peer support is novel. Dr Singh and her team will study the validity of håp as a measurement tool for mental health, wellbeing and flourishing, and assess its impact on them.

If you are an individual or foundation interested in supporting the work of our nonprofit partners or the research study with a grant, please get in touch.

Each partner in our multi-disciplinary team brings their energy, unique experience and insight to håp, and I’m excited and grateful every day to be working with them. We invite you to bring your own experience to håp by joining us on the journey as a Trusted Tester, håp Ambassador or pilot college.

You can learn more at projecthap.com. We can’t wait to hear what you think of håp and your ideas on how to make it work for you.

Goodbye Campus London

Campus London, Google’s space for entrepreneurs, won’t reopen its physical doors after the pandemic. Google for Entrepreneurs will continue to run virtual programmes. I felt sad when I heard the news, but also grateful and proud: The reason Campus is closing is that it worked.

When Kama Staryga, Eze Vidra and I started Campus back in 2012, we approached it like a startup designing a new product. We visited pioneering spaces across the world, like Beta House in Berlin and General Assembly in New York. We did user interviews with startup founders in the East London community to figure out what they needed, how we could have the biggest impact and bring something unique to the scene. More co-working space, free/cheap event space for 100+ people, a cafe with good food and fast wifi, an Android phone test bank and access to mentors and investors topped the list. Oh, and secure bike parking because that part of Shoreditch was a little bit sketchy.

With the help of our friends in the Google real estate team, we gutted a 7 floor building in a quiet street just off Silicon Roundabout and redesigned it to serve the community with all that. The design was sparse and industrial because it looked great, and because our budget was limited. Ironically, some of the design proved so popular that it made its way back into the way Google designed its offices.

Our friends from TechHub and Seedcamp moved in and became our launch partners alongside StartupWeekend. The opening party featured fun tech, great food and Vint Cerf. The next day we sat behind our Lego-style reception desk and held our breath to see if anyone would come.

It turned out that lack of demand was not a problem we were going to have. The building was full from day 1, so much that other co-working spaces opened up around us. Entrepreneurs packed out the cafe (run by Central Working, themselves a startup), finding co-founders and meeting investors. Events were running from breakfast until late evening. TechHub’s desks were booked out. Bloggers recommended Campus as a place for digital nomads to touch down when in London. The wifi slowed down to a grind, causing Eze to tear his hair out until we brought in help from Google’s infrastructure team to upgrade it.

Just under two years later we had over 22,000 members, had hosted over 1,110 events and startups associated with Campus had raised GBP34M in funding, back then a huge amount.

In addition to the resident startups, the community embraced the building and made it their own by bringing so many interesting programmes into it. Sarah Drinkwater who succeeded Eze as second head of Campus writes about them beautifully in her blogpost, so I won’t repeat them here.

Ten years ago we used to look enviously from London to the Bay Area (where I live now). Today London is firmly on the global startup map. I’m grateful and proud to have been part of a brilliant group of trailblazers that helped to breathe life into the fledgling London startup scene a decade ago. Thank you especially to the Seedcamp team Saul KleinReshma SohoniCarlos Espinal and Philipp Moehring, and to the TechHub team led by Elizabeth Varley for being our early partners. Thank you to the Google For Entrepreneurs team led by Mary Grove for taking on Campus and scaling the model across the world, to Eze Vidra and Sarah Drinkwater for making Campus London special, and to Marta Krupinska for having the courage to call it quits now that it’s no longer needed in London.

My next mission: Flourishing minds for all.

Leaving X, starting Flourish Labs

Today is my last day at Alphabet, after 15 great years at Google and X. I’m setting up Flourish Labs, a startup combining cutting edge mental health science and technology to foster flourishing and good mental health. Our mission is flourishing minds for all. We want to build a future where nobody is held back by mental health problems, where everyone can be their best self and achieve their potential.

Poor mental health is a huge problem for our society that has been exacerbated by recent events. The pandemic and social injustice especially affected young people and people of colour. The number of people reporting depression or anxiety symptoms in the US is now 31% of adults, 33% of Black adults, 35% of Latinx adults and 49% of 18-29 year olds, according to the CDC’s mental health survey in May 2021.

Flourishing minds for all college students

Flourish Lab’s first mission is focused on college students: no student left behind by mental health problems. Sadly that is not the case today. 40% of US college students – around 8 million – suffer from mental health problems (Healthy Minds Study). Over 40 percent of students with a mental health diagnosis drop out of college (National Academies report, 2019). Suicide is the number 2 cause of death among students, with 28,000 attempts a year (Healthy Minds study, CDC, Taub & Thompson, 2013). 

Student mental health statistics (also in text)
Photo: Getty Images

With students returning to college campuses this fall and 70% of college presidents stating that mental health is one of their top concerns (ACE survey), now is the time to make a difference for millions of students. Studies demonstrate that improving student mental health can increase academic performance and graduation rates (Healthy Minds/ACE report, 2019). Investing in student mental health makes good economic sense too: 30 students who stay in college for 2 more years at $20k/year tuition yield $1.2M in tuition revenues that would otherwise be lost, and their lifetime earnings increase by $3m (Eisenberg et al, 2009).

We are launching a pilot in August for the 2021/22 academic year. If you are a college that wants to improve the mental health of your students and are interested in taking part in our pilot, please get in touch. We are prioritising community colleges and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) for the initial launch.

We are looking for donors to help fund our non-profit partners, including Active Minds whose founder Alison Malmon has joined our advisory board. If you are a foundation, family office or individual excited about seed-funding innovation projects at the intersection of mental health, education/college success and diversity/equity/inclusion, I’d love to talk with you. All donations will go directly to colleges in our pilot and to our non-profit partners.

To learn more about Flourish Labs and get in touch, please visit flourishlabs.net.

Moving on from Google and X: Thank you and I love you

A few weeks ago I wrote about love being a competitive advantage. I’ve loved my time at Google and X because of the projects I worked on, but most of all because of the people I worked with. I’m grateful to my managers and mentors who propelled me, to my team members who taught me so much (especially the engineers who patiently explained complicated physics, chemistry and AI to me), to my peers who shared their journey with me.

I fell in love with Google at first sight in 1999, when an eToys engineer showed me a new search engine that actually worked. I fell in love again in 2005 when I sat in the lobby of the newly opened Google London office, watching bright-eyed Googlers bustling with a sense of urgency and purpose. They had lava lamps and colourful bouncy balls, just like eToys! I felt a sense of belonging instantly. My first interview was with Lorraine Twohill, a formidable Irish woman who ran the European marketing team at the time and is now the CMO of Google. After our conversation she said, “We’re going to hire you, you’ll be great at Google. Now you need to convince another 14 people that this is the case.” I thought she was joking, but that’s exactly what happened. 14 interviews later I found myself in her team as Google’s first consumer marketing lead in Europe.

I joined Google at a time of explosive growth. When I started, there were around 5000 Googlers globally and 150 in London. We hired people, launched new products and opened offices at breakneck speed. In the marketing team, I had brilliant mentors in Dan Cobley and Yonca Brunini Dervisoglu who fused creativity and data. I worked on inspiring projects: Teaming up with British Airways for a campaign featuring Google Earth. Rolling out Google Maps in dozens of countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Launching Android and Chrome, growing them to hundreds of millions of users. Learning how to make posters and TV ads to complement our online campaigns. Taking Streetview to the small German village of Oberstaufen. Turning the Google homepage into a canvas for children’s art with Doodle4Google. Creating April fool jokes that might someday become real products. As my 20% project, I founded Campus London, Google’s first space for entrepreneurs.

I loved marketing, and at the same time I missed building products and working with engineers. When Megan Smith, a mentor and great connector, introduced me to Astro Teller in 2012, I was curious. Astro worked at GoogleX which the New York Times had called “Google’s lab of wildest dreams”. He told me about self-driving cars and other, still secret projects: internet from balloons, delivery drones, a contact lens that measures glucose in your tears. I loved the audacity and potential for impact. I asked him practical questions: Is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Are you going to partner with mobile phone companies? Do you have a business plan for any of these projects? Astro raised his eyebrows and said, “Those are good questions, why don’t you come over and help us answer them.” 

Two months later my family and I moved to California for a new adventure. In my nine years at X, I kept my job title of “Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world”, but I changed roles three times – a testament that people as well as projects can pivot at X.  

I started as one of the first non-engineers at X with an undefined role and broad remit to ‘de-risk everything that’s not tech’, including product, marketing, legal, policy, operations and business planning. I hired leaders for many of those functions, transforming X from a pure engineering team to the multidisciplinary team it is today. In my first year I mostly worked on Wing, a drone delivery service, and Loon, expanding internet access worldwide with balloons. When Loon took flight in New Zealand in the summer of 2013, I couldn’t travel to the launch site with the team because I was about to have a baby. I had a bet with the engineers about who would launch first. My daughter came 10 days early and Loon was 10 days late, so I won.

In my second chapter, I ran early stage projects. My team and I incubated projects like Mineral, Foghorn, Chronicle, Dandelion and Malta. Many didn’t pan out. I became an expert on how to deal with failure and how to kill good things to make room for great ones. I loved learning about everything from computational agriculture to carbon-neutral fuel chemistry, VR, cybersecurity and energy storage, but running a portfolio was not my highest and best use. I am more of a scuba diver than a snorkeler; I love going deep on one project rather than spreading myself thin over several.

In my third incarnation at X, I got the opportunity to go deep on a topic I was passionate about: mental health. I started Project Amber with a small multi-disciplinary team of neuroscientists, hardware and software engineers, machine learning researchers and med-tech experts. We explored how to use brain-based biomarkers and machine learning to better assess depression and anxiety. At the end of 2020, we open-sourced our EEG technology, published our ML methods and shared insights from our user research with clinicians and students. (See this blogpost for more detail and links to materials.)

My career has moved from strategy to product to marketing to leadership roles, from ecommerce to consumer tech to moonshots. Now I am bringing all these experiences to my next chapter, focusing on mental health. I can’t wait to see where this takes me. If I have learnt one thing in the past 25 years, I know that my path won’t be linear.

Betrayal and Love

This week is my 15 year anniversary of joining Google. Emi Nietfeld recently wrote a nuanced op-ed in The New York Times about her experience as a software engineer at Google, from joyful beginnings to being harassed by a coworker and the miserable aftermath of her speaking out about it. She talks about being in love with Google when she first joined, and that love being slowly drained away by her bad experience. I have been thinking about her story since she published it, and it provoked some of my own reflections that I am sharing here.

I have been lucky to not experience sexual harassment myself, but it happened all around me during my career in consulting, retail and tech. Over the years I learnt to recognise the signals and gained the confidence to speak out about it: to others on the team, to HR, and sometimes talking with the harasser directly. Showing the victim that we believe them and that they are not alone is perhaps as important as having a due process to deal with the harasser.

I did experience plenty of sexism. Two incidents that happened twenty years apart I remember vividly because they felt like a betrayal. In both cases I was completely taken by surprise.

1/ The time I got a bad performance review in my first job in consulting. 

There was one female (me) and one male analyst on the team. I was sent out to interview traders on the bank’s trading floor about their job, so we could figure out how to reduce costs. The male analyst did the spreadsheet work. At the performance review, my work was dismissed as ‘soft’, whereas my male colleague was rewarded for doing ‘great analysis’. I was furious, felt dejected and nearly quit. My mentor, a senior partner and elder statesman at the firm, talked me into staying. (Side note: Your mentor does not need to look like you.)

Two months later, the partner who had signed off on the bad review pulled me into his office because the firm had just landed its first internet strategy project. It was 1997, and he didn’t know what ‘the internet’ was or how it worked. I explained it to him, and he asked me to join the project team. I got a great review on that project. Afterwards I was only staffed on internet strategy projects (no more boring cost cutting!), and eventually left the firm to join an ecommerce startup in 1999. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t quit in 1997. 

2/ The time I was told to dress more like an executive. 

In an anonymous 360 review, a colleague commented that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I should dress more like an executive. The person suggested I dress like Ruth Porat, the CFO of Alphabet. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I admire Ruth deeply, and she has joked about how all the women in her generation wore suits with big shoulder pads to dress the part when she started her career on Wall Street. But this wasn’t banking in 1987. This was X, the moonshot factory in 2017, where most of my male peers wore t-shirts and flip flops, and our boss Astro Teller glided around on rollerblades. I chose to ignore the advice. 

When my VOGUE article came out, I felt vindicated. It proved beyond a doubt that I was capable of dressing like an executive – with a little help from a VOGUE stylist, make-up and hair artist. During the cover shoot (one of my most fun days at the office ever), the photographer caught Astro photobombing into the shot on his rollerblades. The playful picture made it into the magazine with a tongue-in-cheek caption: X CEO Astro Teller took the VOGUE Business premise “Women in the foreground” literally and photo-bombed himself cheerfully into the background. I had a print framed and gave it to Astro as a present. He proudly displayed it outside his office. Whenever I walked past it, I smiled as I remembered that 360 review.

Photo: Rainer Hosch

Emi Niedfeld’s story felt sadly familiar, echoing Susan Fowler’s post about her experience at Uber and many #MeToo stories in tech and elsewhere over the years. Yet, I believe that we’re making progress as an industry and as a company. At X, we have a thriving community of Women of X who support each other; women like Diana Skaar who recently shared about her experience as an Asian woman in tech. We have strong allies, starting from the top with X CEO Astro Teller and COO Tom Tweddell. Astro and Tom have made equity, inclusion and diversity a company priority and champion the work that was started by Gina Rudan and is now led by Rachel Williams. Gina and Rachel are incredible leaders whose creativity and persistence drives change every day.

Love is a competitive advantage.

What really depressed me about Emi’s piece is her conclusion that she can’t fall in love with a company anymore. I recognised myself in her description of being so in love with the company when I first joined Google London in 2006. It felt like a family, not like a company: working hard and having dinner in the office, amazingly fun offsites, a shared mission and purpose. As Emi points out, it was also all-consuming and sometimes hard to detach. I struggled to let it be just a job, not my life. I learnt to draw boundaries, for example starting my work day at 10am so I could have time with my baby son in the morning, since I spent most evenings in the office on video calls with California.

During my career I have fallen in and out of love with most of my jobs. Sometimes the love lasted only a few months, but often I had a few good years. I was still in love when eToys went bankrupt and died in 2001. When the love withers, it’s time to move on, as with any relationship. You don’t have to leave immediately: in a recent podcast on how to rethink bad decisions Adam Grant interviews Janice Burch who made herself a 1 year exit plan to leave the company she didn’t thrive in.

I haven’t given up on love, quite the contrary. My friend Stephen DeBerry often talks about love being a competitive advantage. It might feel out of place to use the word love in a corporate environment; at worst it conjures up associations with harassment. What Stephen is talking about is having meaning and joy in one’s work, and connection with others. Studies have shown that supportive work environments reduce workers’ stress and even mortality. Google’s Project Aristotle research found that psychological safety, a concept first described by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, is the most important predictor of team effectiveness. Psychological safety is reciprocal. Brené Brown‘s research shows that having the courage to show up vulnerably encourages others to do the same. Serving others often leads to our own success, as Adam Grant argues in his book Give and Take.

We spend more waking hours with our colleagues than with our families. I always want to spend this time doing something I love. I want to be with people I love and feel connected to, in my personal life and in my work life. If I don’t love what I do and the people I work with, why am I doing it at all? How can it possibly be my highest and best use? 

Ruth Porat asked me this when I came to her for career advice once: “What’s your highest and best use?” What is it that only I can do, and where will I have the biggest impact? The phrase has stuck with me ever since. I ask myself frequently, and I ask the women whom I mentor and sponsor. I didn’t end up dressing like Ruth – although these days she is seen in a puffer vest more often than in a pinstripe jacket -, but I did take her career advice.

Perhaps
we should love ourselves
so fiercely
that when others see us
they know exactly
how it should be done

Rudy Francisco

#womenintech #womeninstem#loveisacompetitiveadvantage 

Stop apologising. Say thank you instead.

That was the message I got from Shellye Archambeau this week who shared her life and work lessons in a fireside chat with Xers.

Shellye is an extraordinary leader who worked her way up from intern to tech CEO and board member during a time when there were even fewer women in tech than today, and even fewer Black women. A woman in tech trailblazer and true role model, she just published Unapologetically Ambitious, a book that shares her roadmap on taking risks, breaking barriers, and creating your own success.

One of the points Shellye makes is that women and people of colour tend to apologise too much. Instead of saying “Sorry I am late”, she recommends saying “Thank you for your patience.” Saying thank you is gracious without putting yourself down.

In the 24 hours after Shellye’s talk, I caught myself apologising several times: to my team that I was late with some work because my Macbook died, to people whose email I hadn’t replied to straight away, to my husband, to my daughter for asking her to hurry up and brush her teeth. I changed to “thank you” when I noticed it in time, but several times my apology habit got me. I noticed my feelings when this happened: Apologising doesn’t do anything to alleviate my guilt, even if the other person accepts the apology. Saying thank you always makes me feel better, and I feel more connected to the person I’m thanking.

Studies have shown that a regular gratitude practice really does increase happiness. I want less guilt and more gratitude in my life. Since many of my human interactions are through my laptop these days, I have stuck a big note on it to remind me to stop apologising and say thank you instead.

Thank you to Helen and Angelie for bringing Shellye to X, the moonshot factory. We’ve hosted some extraordinary female leaders as part of our ongoing speaker series (Celeste Kidd‘s talk was another standout for me), but Shellye’s message really struck me.

Thank you, Shellye, for giving me the nudge I needed, and sorry I haven’t finished your book yet. (Just kidding!)

#UnapologeticallyShellye #UnapologeticallyAmbitious #stopapologising #justsaythankyou #womenintechnology #blackwomenintech

This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse on 4 February 2021. Please comment there.

Empowering students and clinicians with mental health data

A user research report report on opportunities for tech-enabled innovation in student mental health from Shift and X.

Recently I wrote about Amber, the early stage mental health project I led at X. We developed prototype technologies to better measure mental health, including a low-cost, portable, research-grade system to make it easier to collect electroencephalography (EEG) data, and machine learning methods to make it easier to interpret these data. We wrapped up our work at X and made our technology and insights freely available to the mental health community. You can read more about Amber’s story and access our technical resources on the X blog.

Today we are sharing a report on the user research with students and clinicians that we conducted between 2018 and 2020 in partnership with Shift, a social innovation charity.

Project Amber asked the question: what if we could make brain waves as easy to measure and interpret as blood glucose, and use the results as an objective measurement of depression? From my undergraduate degree in psychology I was familiar with EEG, a 96-year-old technology to measure electrical activity in the brain. Today EEG is primarily used in neuroscience research labs and epilepsy clinics. Making EEG more accessible and usable at scale would open up a host of possibilities to deploy it in primary care, counselling and psychiatry. We had a promising technology, but we had to identify specific user needs to figure out how the technology could impact real-world problems.

We started with informal user interviews, with clinicians and people with lived experience of mental health problems. We spoke with primary care physicians, therapists, counsellors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. We spent time with young people and their parents, mothers who experienced perinatal depression, and people who had struggled with depression all their life.

In one of my interviews with a physician working in a primary care practice at a London university, I first learned about the huge unmet need in student mental health.

Me:  “What percentage of your patient visits are about mental health?”

Dr M:  “Seventy percent.”

Me: “Did you say seventeen?”

Dr M: “No, seventy. Most of my patients are students between 18 and 24 years old. They don’t have many health issues other than sexually transmitted diseases and mental health. Around exam times when they get stressed, nearly 100% of my visits are about mental health.”

She told me about her challenges in triaging students in a 10-minute appointment: deciding who will likely get better by themselves, who can be treated within primary care, who to refer to a mental health specialist, or who needs a safety plan because they face immediate risk of harming themselves. 78% of students on her campus self-identified as having some mental health issues. The average waitlist for therapy was 3 months. Every year there were student suicides at her university.

Back at my desk I researched statistics and literature on student mental health, which concurred with Dr M’s experience. There is a crisis on both sides of the Atlantic. Ever greater numbers of students in the UK and US are presenting with mental health problems. Higher education institutions are struggling to keep up with the demand for support. These challenges are exacerbated by a backdrop of multiple societal crises, including the climate emergency, racial injustice, systemic inequity, and now a global pandemic. This means there is great need for change and even greater potential for innovation. 

After Kit Yee Au-Yeung joined my team as a product manager, we partnered with Shift, a London-based social innovation charity with experience of user-led design and deep knowledge of the youth mental health space. We commissioned Shift to conduct more formal user research into student mental health to learn more about the experiences of students and clinicians working in higher education settings. In a series of studies between 2018 and 2020, Shift tested how Amber’s proposition of introducing a new, more objective measure of depression and anxiety would resonate with clinicians and students with lived experience of mental health problems: how they might use it in their daily lives and professional practice, and what the challenges might be in introducing such a radical new approach.

We found student mental health to be a fertile ground for tech-enabled innovation for several reasons. There is growing unmet need for college mental health services. Students have been pushing for change in mental health and are often early adopters of technology. Universities have both a moral and financial incentive to improve their student mental health systems.

Shift’s report highlights the current challenges in college mental health, the role that better mental health data can play in empowering both students and clinicians, and the importance of putting people at the heart of tech innovation. We emerged with three clear recommendations for those working to improve student mental health:

  1. Support students to track their own subjective data
  2. Introduce objective data into therapeutic interactions
  3. Make data accessible and interpretable for students and clinicians

By sharing our insights as well as open-sourcing our technology, we hope to inform and enhance the work of other researchers and innovators striving to improve mental health services and outcomes for students. We also hope to encourage much-needed investment into further research, tools, and services to improve student mental health, accelerating systemic change towards a world where all students can get the mental health support they need.

Learn more about our user research and download the report on the Shift website.

Sharing Project Amber with the mental health community

New open source resources to help researchers collect and interpret electroencephalography (EEG) data for mental health measurement

Today at the Sapien Labs Symposium, my colleague Vlad Miskovic presented insights from Project Amber, an early stage mental health project at X. Amber’s small team of of neuroscientists, hardware and software engineers, machine learning researchers and med-tech product experts have been developing prototype technologies to help tackle the huge and growing problem of mental health. After three years of exploration, we recently wrapped up our work at X. Now we are making our technology and research findings freely available in the hope that the mental health community can build upon our work.

Poor mental health is a huge and growing problem globally. The World Health Organization estimated in 2017 that 322M people globally suffer from depression and 264M from anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread psychological distress, affecting even more people.

One of the challenges is that it is truly difficult to assess mental health, both for people who are distressed and for health care providers who are not experts in mental health. With 1000 possible symptom combinations, depression manifests differently in different people. Today’s assessment of mental health mostly relies on asking people a series of questions in a conversation with a clinician or via surveys such as the PHQ-9 or GAD-7, which are subjective. While it is important to capture the subjective experience of a person living with mental health problems, the field is missing objective measures that are commonplace in other areas of health. For example, people with diabetes and their doctors routinely measure blood glucose and use these data to make adjustments to insulin, diet and exercise regimes — but there is no equivalent for depression or anxiety.

Amber’s moonshot: Finding a biomarker for depression

Our journey started by asking the question: what if we could make brain waves as easy to measure and interpret as blood glucose, and use them as an objective measurement of depression? Our approach was to marry cutting-edge machine learning techniques with a 96-year-old technology to measure electrical activity in the brain: electroencephalography (EEG)

We were inspired by neuroscience studies showing that certain patterns of electrical activity in the brain correspond with depression symptoms. For example, many depressed people find that things that once brought them pleasure no longer do so; they don’t experience the reward that follows a positive experience. By designing specific game-like tasks that people complete while their brain activity is being measured using EEG, scientists can gauge processing within the brain’s reward system. It turns out that the brain response following a win in the game — an event related potential (ERP) — is subdued in people who are depressed, compared to those who are not.

Image for post
Difference in reward response among depressed and non-depressed people
(unpublished data from Amber feasibility study with Florida State University)

This blunted brain response is a reliable effect that has been shown in many studies, which we replicated in our own study carried out in partnership with Greg Hajcak and his team at Florida State University.

However, these studies were done in neuroscience research labs. They require expensive specialist equipment and highly trained EEG experts to collect, process and interpret the data. For EEG to come out of the lab and into the real world as a mental health assessment tool in a primary care doctor’s office, counseling centre or psychiatric clinic, it needs to become more accessible and usable at scale.

Our project at X focused on three areas:
1) Making EEG data easier to collect
2) Making EEG data easier to interpret
3) Understanding how this technology might be applied in the real world

The rest of this post lays out our work and insights in each of these areas.

Making EEG data easier to collect: The Amber EEG system

Our team set out to develop an easy-to-use, low-cost, portable, research-grade EEG system.

Image for post
Hardware engineer Gabriella Levine (left), neuroscientist Sarah Laszlo (right) testing early Amber prototypes

We built many prototypes of bioamplifiers, headsets and sensors, and tested them in feasibility studies at X and at Florida State University. 

Image for post
A selection of the Amber EEG prototypes

In our final prototype the headset slips on like a swim cap and can be put on by anyone with minimal training, taking around three minutes to set up. It uses three dry sensors arranged along the midline at Fz, Cz, Pz, the most important channels for ERP assessments of reward and cognitive function. The accompanying bioamp can support up to 32 channels, so it’s possible to connect a standard headset with some modifications. Amber’s system can be used to collect resting state EEG and event-related potentials with our software that time-locks a task to the EEG measurement.

Image for post
Amber’s final EEG prototype: Headset, sensor strip and bioamp

Making EEG data easier to interpretApplying machine learning techniques to EEG signal

Our team also explored how new approaches in machine learning can be applied to interpreting EEG data. To make EEG data usable by mental health researchers and clinicians more broadly — i.e. outside electrophysiology labs and neurology clinics — it would be helpful to have automated ways to denoise the signals at scale, and to determine which aspects of the EEG signal are relevant. Collaborating with the team at DeepMind, we adapted methods from unsupervised representation learning to address these challenges. We set out our findings in a paper that is currently under review.

First, we demonstrated that representation learning approaches such as autoencoders could be leveraged to effectively denoise EEG signals without a human EEG expert in the loop. This is important to enable processing EEG data at scale. Second, we offer a proof of concept that it’s possible to extract interpretable features that are relevant to mental health. We used these features obtained from disentangling autoencoders to predict several clinical labels such as major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, based on a clinical interview by a mental health expert. Unlike previous studies, we were able to do this for an individual participant (rather than a group), which is essential to make it useful in a clinical setting. The methods were capable of recovering usable signal representations from single EEG trials. This means that it may be possible to derive clinically useful information from brain electrophysiology with far fewer data samples than what is traditionally used in research labs, which often rely on hundreds of experimental trials.

Understanding how this technology might be applied in the real world: Insights from user research

Over the course of our project, we conducted over 250 interviews with potential users of this technology. We spoke to people with lived experience of mental health problems and with clinicians of all kinds, including counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, primary care practitioners and pediatricians. We tested how Amber’s proposition of introducing a new, more objective measure of depression and anxiety resonated with them, how they might use it in their daily lives and professional practice, and what the challenges might be in introducing such a radical new approach.

Here are three key insights from our user research:

  1. Mental health measurement remains an unsolved problem. Despite the availability of many mental health surveys and scales, they are not widely used, especially in primary care and counseling settings. Reasons range from burden (“I don’t have time for this”) to skepticism (“Using a scale is no better than using my clinical judgement”) to lack of trust (“I don’t think my client is filling this in truthfully” and ”I don’t want to reveal this much to my counsellor”). These findings were in line with the literature on measurement-based mental health care. Any new measurement tool would have to overcome these barriers by creating clear value for both the person with lived experience and the clinician.
  2. There is value in combining subjective and objective data. People with lived experience and clinicians both welcomed the introduction of objective metrics, but not as a replacement for subjective assessment and asking people about their experience and feelings. The combination of subjective and objective metrics was seen as especially powerful. Objective metrics might validate the subjective experience; or if the two diverge, that in itself is an interesting insight which provides the starting point for a conversation.
  3. There are multiple use cases for new measurement technology. Our initial hypothesis was that clinicians might use a “brainwave test” as a diagnostic aid. However, this concept got a lukewarm reception. Mental health experts such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists felt confident in their ability to diagnose via clinical interview. Primary care physicians thought an EEG test could be useful, but only if it was conducted by a medical assistant before their consultation with the patient, similar to a blood pressure test. Counsellors and social workers don’t do diagnosis in their practice, so it was irrelevant to them. Some people with lived experience did not like the idea of being labelled as depressed by a machine. By contrast, there was a notably strong interest in using technology as a tool for ongoing monitoring — capturing changes in mental health state over time — to learn what happens between visits. Many clinicians asked if they could send the EEG system home so their patients and clients could repeat the test on their own. They were also very interested in EEG’s potential predictive qualities, e.g. predicting who is likely to get more depressed in future. More research is needed to determine how a tool such as EEG would be best deployed in clinical and counseling settings, including how it could be combined with other measurement technologies such as digital phenotyping.

Much of our research was conducted in the US and the UK in partnership with Shift, a nonprofit based in London. This report by Shift details the research and the findings. (Report added on 15 December 2020.)

Opening up Amber to the world

We didn’t succeed in our original goal of finding a single biomarker for depression and anxiety. It is unlikely that one exists, given the complexity of mental health. Yet there’s no question that there is a huge opportunity for technology to enable better measurement.

This will empower individuals and their healthcare provider to better match intervention options to an individual’s needs, to measure the impact of those interventions, and ultimately promote better mental health. While the promise of emerging measurement techniques like EEG/ERP and digital phenotyping is very exciting, it is still early days. There are many pitfalls on the path to making tech-enabled mental health measurement work in the real world, and more research needs to be done.

For this reason we’ve decided to make Amber’s technology and insights available to the global mental health community. We believe we can make a bigger and faster impact on this huge problem by sharing our work freely.

Today, we are open-sourcing our hardware designs, visualizer and stimulus software of the Amber prototype EEG system and putting the code on Github. We are also pledging the free use of our patents and applications listed in this patent pledge. We are making these resources available so that mental health researchers have all of the specifications, code, and permissions they would need to rebuild our EEG system, or design their own based on it. In addition we are donating 50 assembled Amber prototype devices to Sapien Labs for use by researchers worldwide as part of their Human Brain Diversity Project which supports EEG research globally, with an emphasis on low-income countries and underrepresented groups.

We hope that open-sourcing our EEG system and publishing our machine learning techniques will be of value not just to EEG experts, but also to the wider mental health research community who were perhaps put off by the complexity and cost of working with EEG before. Addressing today’s challenges will require new partnerships between scientists, clinicians, technologists, policymakers, and individuals with lived experience. Now more than ever, more diverse voices, more multi-disciplinary collaboration, and more open sharing of knowledge are needed to unlock better mental health for everyone.

To learn more about Amber’s technology and user research, please visit the following links:

Please note: The Amber EEG System is a prototype investigational device and has not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration or any other regulatory agency for any purpose, including a medical purpose.

This blog was first published on 2 November 2002 and updated on 15 December 2020 with links to the Shift user research report.

Harvard McLean TIPS: Tech-enabled mental health measurement

Technology in Psychiatry Summit
28 October 2020
Boston
Talk / panel
“Towards Measurement-Based, Person-Centric Mental Health Care: How Technology Can Help”


Obi presented as part of a panel on “Global Access to Mental Healthcare Through Digital Technology.” These remarks were part of the 2020 Technology in Psychiatry Summit, an event organised by the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry, which took place virtually on October 28-30, 2020.

Please visit https://mclean.org/itp to learn more about the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry at McLean, a Harvard Medical School affiliate.

Asking for help and saying “Yes”​ in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic

This post first was first published on LinkedIn on 14 July 2020.

What I learnt working on Heroes Health, a new initiative to support the mental health of COVID-19 frontline health care workers and first responders

Back in March, I got a call from Dr. Sam McLean, a trauma researcher and emergency physician at the University of North Carolina. At the time, I was struggling to settle into the new reality of my life in the pandemic. Working from home in a never-ending stream of video calls, I was missing my team and spontaneous chats with co-workers in the kitchen. I felt isolated from my friends and family, not having the energy for yet another video call after work. My husband and I were figuring out new parenting skills: how to homeschool our children, how to deal with ever-expanding screen time when they asked for Minecraft and Netflix after doing their online school work. Yet our family’s struggles felt tiny compared to what others were facing. As I read the devastating news of COVID-19 infections, deaths and job losses mounting up in Europe and elsewhere, I felt helpless and uncertain of where to make a difference in this new world beyond taking care of my family and my team. Sam gave me that opportunity on that grey March morning. 

Sam told me about his work on the COVID-19 frontlines in the hospital. As a trauma researcher, he saw the havoc that the virus was wreaking not just on the lives of his patients but also on his coworkers. Already on the edge of burnout, healthcare workers were confronted with a novel virus without treatment or vaccine, lack of PPE and ventilators, watching their patients suffer and die through glass screens, worrying about infecting their own families. After our call, I read up on the literature. Sam’s personal experience was backed up by many papers discussing the toll on healthcare workers during previous infectious disease outbreaks (Brooks et al., J Occup Environ Med 2018). New papers were already coming out describing increased depression and anxiety among healthcare workers who dealt with COVID-19 in China (Lai J, Ma S, Wang Y, et al. JAMA Netw Open 2020). So what could be done about it?

Sam’s idea was to measure the mental health of COVID-19 frontline workers with a mobile app, and connect them with mental health resources. He wanted to help workers understand and track their own mental health state during this time of extreme pressure, and encourage them to get help – many healthcare workers don’t seek mental health treatment. He called it the “Heroes Health” initiative to draw attention to the health needs of the heroes who are doing so much for others every day. He needed a technology partner and reached out to me for help.

I said “Yes” immediately, and asked others in our company for help. The first to say “Yes” was Jamie Rogers, a product manager on the Google Cloud team. By the end of the day, Sam had engineers from my team at X and Google Cloud working on his app. Two weeks later we had volunteers from across the company donating their time, many working evenings and weekends. The project had become a cross-functional effort of Alphabet engineers, scientists, product and program managers, partnerships, marketing, PR and sales folks supporting Sam’s team of researchers and clinicians at UNC. The Google Cloud team provided free hosting to UNC as part of the Google Cloud Research Credit program. Our design agency O/M Studio made the Heroes Health logo for free. The team at Boston Technology Corp in India worked alongside the Google engineers, turning around bug fixes while our US-based volunteers slept.

While the tech team worked on the app, Sam enlisted the help of other mental health experts such as Ron Kessler at Harvard and Samantha Meltzer-Brody at UNC to design the mental health surveys and support services we wanted to link from the app. We interviewed frontline workers and hospital administrators to understand how to make Heroes Health useful to them, aware that they were already busy and overstretched. Nearly every hospital we spoke to said “Yes” and wanted to take part in the initiative, but they needed our help. We realised that Sam’s team at UNC needed to provide central analytics and program management to support institutions and connect Heroes Health participants to mental health services. We also learnt that with hospital budgets under pressure due to COVID-19, there was no way we could ask participating organisations to fund the initiative.

Sam and I reached out to philanthropists to ask for their help to get Heroes Health off the ground.Garen and Brandon Staglin at OneMind and Zia Khan at The Rockefeller Foundation were the first funders to say “Yes”. Bank of America, The Lauder Foundation and individual donors followed. Those who could not give money generously introduced us to their friends. Within 6 weeks, we had raised $500k we needed as seed funding. We are continuing conversations with funders to cover the project’s expanding needs.

In the middle of all this, Sam stopped responding to my emails. I was worried but kept working on the app and fundraising, hoping he was ok and would reappear eventually. After a long week of silence, I got an email confirming what I had feared: he had contracted the virus and given it to his wife, his son and possibly his dog. I was relieved to hear they were all fine and recovering well. Now a COVID-19 survivor himself, Sam re-emerged with even more energy to make the Heroes Health initiative a success. With the philanthropy funding, he built a diverse team of program managers, data scientists and tech people at UNC to support the project.

Image: UNC Heroes Health team https://heroeshealth.unc.edu/

Image: UNC Heroes Health team https://heroeshealth.unc.edu/

Meanwhile, the world started taking note of COVID-19’s impact on mental health. The pandemic turned a simmering mental health crisis into an acute one, as the UN noted in a policy report on COVID-19 and Mental Health. Millions of people are affected physically by the virus, and many more are affected psychologically. 36% of Americans reported anxiety or depression symptoms in July in a NCHS/Census survey. Calls to mental health helplines are up 891%. I have been compiling papers and articles on COVID-19 and mental health in a shared Google Doc which is getting longer and longer. The papers and articles about and by healthcare workers paint a picture of an increasingly desperate situation: “I can’t turn my brain off“, “I’m a Health Care Worker. You Need to Know How Close We Are to Breaking“, “We think of our physicians as invulnerable, but we’re putting them in untenable situations“, “Behind the stiff upper lip, we’re highly vulnerable“, “Health care workers aren’t just ‘heroes’. We’re also scared and exposed“, “I Couldn’t Do Anything.”

Sam saw this future coming early in the pandemic, and he motivated us all to something about it. The Heroes Health Initiative is now being piloted at Sam’s home hospital, UNC Health in Chapel Hill, just four months after our first call.

Today we are announcing the rollout of the Heroes Health initiative across the US. Healthcare workers and first responders can now download the Heroes Health app from the Google Play Store and Apple Store free of charge, regardless of whether their institution is taking part in the initiative. For individuals, the app displays symptom summary reports to help them better understand the state of their own mental health and changes over time. The app also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasising free and low-cost services. 

I am grateful to Sam McLean and his team for giving me the opportunity to contribute to such an amazing project, to our funders, and to the Google and X volunteers who said “Yes” and brought this project to life: Anne-Carlijn Reijrink, Chris Tirrell, Cynthia Horiguchi, Jamie Rogers, Jesus Trujillo Gomez, Katie Link, Kar Epker, Kit Yee Au-Yeung, Nicole DeSantis, Ola Spyra, Pramod Gupta, Qiumin Xu, Stephanie Wilson, Vlad Miskovic, William Mills, Yvonne Yip, Yu-Chi Kuo, Zohreh Jabbari and so many others. We have handed over the app to the UNC team who will manage it going forward. Our immediate work is done, but we are all excited to stay in touch with the project and can’t wait to see its impact.

As for me, Sam and I are already thinking about how we can roll out Heroes Health internationally.

We need your help!

  1. Help spread the word about the Heroes Health InitiativePost about it on your social media. If you know any first responders and healthcare workers in the US, encourage them to join. If you know administrators or executives at first responder and healthcare organisations, tell them about it.
  2. Help us fundraise: We need further funds to bring Heroes Health to more organisations in the US and beyond. You can donate on the Heroes Health fundraising page. If you know a foundation who might be interested to fund the Heroes Health Initiative, please message me on LinkedIn – we would love an introduction.

Visit UNC’s website to learn more.

#heroeshealth #mentalhealth #SupportHealthcareHeroes #ThanksHealthHero #Breakthestigma

Financial Times: ‘You Can’t Cast Half the Population As Villains and the Other Half As Victims’

The tech executive on how she makes ‘moonshots’ a reality at X

By Hannah Kuchler
Photos by Maggie Shannon

This article was published on 5 December 2018 as part of the Financial Times Series Women in 2018: The Change Makers.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018
Read the original on FT.com (subscription required) or the FT’s Medium blog.

Thanks to Obi Felten, there are self-driving cars on the streets, internet-beaming balloons in the sky and burritos delivered by drones. Felten is chief translator for the “moonshooters”. The team she heads at X, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, helps innovators ready their technologies for the real world. X is used to incubate the Silicon Valley giant’s most daring projects — known as “moonshots” because they are supposedly as audacious as launching a spacecraft to the moon.

Fluent in both engineer and earthling, the 46-year-old German explains her unusual role. “I am a translator. No, I’m serious,” she insists, as I smile. “I’m really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand each other.”

Felten is a rare female leader in the technology industry, where maverick men are more usually celebrated. But the questioning spirit she applies to her day job has led her to challenge this male-dominated world to open up to women. She was among those to join the recent walkout of Google employees over the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.

After more than two decades working for global tech companies, Felten is adept at bridging different cultures and disciplines. Born to academic parents in Berlin, she witnessed her first big change as a teenager when the Wall came down. She studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford before getting swept up in the dotcom boom as a product manager for eToys.com. After marketing more conventional Google products, such as Chrome and Maps, she joined X.

© Maggie Shannon

As politicians and regulators grapple with social networks that leak data, perhaps even damaging democracy, and smartphones are accused of warping our minds and manners, Silicon Valley needs translators more than ever.

“There’s this misconception that technology is built by technologists in this bubble and then it gets thrown out into the world. That’s partly because there have been bad examples of exactly that happening,” Felten says. “We don’t want to make that mistake. Yes, technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape the technology and make sure it is deployed to solve humanity’s problems and not just create new ones.”


X is possibly the most exciting thing that has ever happened to a suburban shopping mall. The bland, beige structure in Mountain View, California, a couple of miles from Google’s main campus, has been transformed into a workshop to change the world.

In the lobby are examples of outlandish projects that have “graduated” from the lab. There’s a self-driving bubble car with no steering wheel, now part of Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit. Then there’s the Loon balloon, with the translucency of a jellyfish, launched in July to extend internet access around the world. It was used to bring connectivity to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and will soon be flying over Kenya.

Felten first heard about these projects six years ago while talking to the scientist Astro Teller, X’s “captain of moonshots”. “I asked him all these questions,” she says, “like, ‘Is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Have you talked to any governments about it? Are you going to partner with phone companies or compete with them? Do you have a business plan?’”

Teller said these were good questions — but his engineers were mostly working on technical problems. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Why don’t you come here and help us?’”

X’s philosophy is that it is easier to invent a solution that is “10X” — a tenfold improvement on a current idea — than to improve it by 10 per cent. “If you free yourself from preconceived notions, then you can be more creative,” Felten says.

They begin by tackling the hardest part of the problem. This approach is called #monkeyfirst: Teller has written that if you are trying to teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you should not be tempted to start by building the pedestal.

With this in mind, Wing, a drone delivery unit that graduated from X, is starting with food precisely because it’s so difficult: hot meals have to be delivered quickly, and demand is uneven.

Teams are pushed to test products in the real world as soon as possible. When X tested semi-autonomous cars on Googlers, they learnt an important lesson: even if you tell people to watch the road, they don’t when they think the car is driving itself, so it’s safer to design a fully autonomous car.

Felten believes other tech companies could learn from bringing in users to test products and even involving them in product development. Silicon Valley should be open to outside voices, be they partner companies or regulators, and by hiring staff from a variety of backgrounds, she says.

Testing helps X to fail fast — but it still prefers to fail quietly. Felten had not yet joined the company when Google Glass, its smart eyewear, arrived, complete with skydivers at Google’s conference and a feature in Vogue. But she vows X will never be so splashy again. “The engineers all thought of it as a prototype, but the world received it as a product because of the way we positioned it,” she says.

Technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape technology.”

It soon became clear that Glass was not useful enough to consumers for them to put up with wearing a weird mini-computer on their face. It was, however, convenient in businesses, where an enterprise edition is now used by engineers and doctors.

Even in Silicon Valley, where praising failure has become a cliché, it can be hard to abandon an idea. Felten sets “kill” criteria with her teams: they agree that if certain things happen, they will dump the project. “We accept that we’re going to fail a lot of times, because the more audacious your endeavour is… the more likely you’re going to fail along the way,” she says.


When Felten arrived on the West Coast from the UK, she was surrounded by men. In London, she had role models from other industries or in politics. But in Silicon Valley, large tech companies are almost all run by men. About 80 per cent of technical positions are filled by men, and 70 per cent of all roles. Venture capital is even more male, with female start-up founders receiving just 2 per cent of VC dollars last year.

This situation inspired Felten to become an “active” rather than a “latent” feminist. “I actually sought out other women, because I realised quickly that was a shortcut to finding the really talented people,” she says.

Simmering discontent with the Silicon Valley status quo burst into the open last year when Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, wrote powerfully about how sexual harassment was ignored at the company. Her post led to an investigation at Uber, which contributed to the departure of chief executive Travis Kalanick. “Susan’s blog post was a watershed,” Felten says. “The fact that it changed Uber, the way it kicked that off, is a really extraordinary thing.”

© Maggie Shannon

Admitting she may be an “incurable optimist”, Felten sees some improvement in the Valley since then, with more women demanding change and more men committing to improving women’s lives at work. As momentum built in the #MeToo movement, women increasingly reported harassment and denounced tech companies, including Google, for their treatment of the female workforce.

A recent New York Times article claimed that two senior Google executives had left with significant departure packages, one of $90m, despite allegations of sexual harassment that internal investigations found credible. One director at X also left following reports of sexual harassment but did not receive a payout.

The story provoked a Google-wide walkout, with employees of both sexes accusing the company of hypocrisy for not living up to its professed values of diversity and inclusion. “I didn’t even think about not participating,” Felten says. “I thought it was a great idea. It was a statement to draw attention to some of the issues. Everyone here was incredibly supportive.”

Google responded to some of the organisers’ demands, including dropping forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. But many employees have said it needs to do more to close the gender gap. I ask Felten if, given her position, she thought there were other ways of pushing Google to take action. She begins by talking about promoting diversity. The list starts to sound like many well-meaning efforts in tech companies — but Felten is, of course, thinking bigger.

“When we grew up, it was very much like, you’re a girl or you’re a boy, right. In high schools here, people talk about gender fluidity. But what if we actually think about it much more in terms of femininity and masculinity?

“So yes, we need to empower women and our girls, and teach them how to adopt some masculine traits because those still get you propelled in the way society works at the moment. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some of the more feminine traits. I almost think it’s harder for a boy to be feminine than it is for a girl to be masculine.”

We need to teach girls how to adopt some masculine traits. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some more feminine traits

A less binary approach might also help calm the gender debate. A men’s rights movement is simmering on the internet and inside Google, where engineer James Damore was fired last year for circulating a memo that, among other things, said women were biologically better suited to “jobs in artistic or social areas” than engineering.

Felten is unconvinced. “You can’t cast half the population as villains and the other half as the victims. A, I think that’s not great for women either. I don’t want to be cast as a victim. And B, there’s many, many men who are incredibly supportive,” she says.

Is that the 10X idea for solving discrimination against women? I ask. Felten cups her hands on her face. “I don’t know,” she says. But she thinks making our workplaces more inclusive can only help us to crack the world’s biggest challenges. “Think about it. If you brought all this talent to the table that’s currently neglected, not just in our society but in countries across the globe, you would have all that much more brain power to apply to these problems.”

Felten’s list of problems to solve is “endless”: she is excited about using algorithms to understand biological data and applying machine learning to improve food production. But the biggest — or #monkeyfirst — challenge may be tackling climate change. X has done several projects in the area. Some have failed; others, such as Dandelion, which brings geothermal energy into people’s homes, are now companies.

“If we don’t solve climate change within the next generation or so, then there will be a tipping point where it will become much more difficult,” Felten says. “It’s really hard — and it’s definitely a moonshot.”

Hannah Kuchler is an FT correspondent in San Francisco

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.