Michal Depa’s smartphone-based blood tests and coaching app help 50,000 patients in India—where, he says, one in four deaths is attributable to diabetes.
Born in Poland and raised in Montreal, Depa studied electrical engineering at McGill. He came to MIT as an undergrad exchange student on a Killam Fellowship in 2007 and returned to earn a master’s, developing analysis algorithms for cardiac images captured with MRI machines. As a volunteer with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab’s Sana Mobile group, he helped create an oral cancer screening app for health workers to use in India.
Depa and fellow Sana Mobile volunteer Sidhant Jena, a Harvard Business School student, loved the idea of serving patients without access to expensive equipment like MRIs. “The one thing we didn’t like was that it was grant-driven,” Depa says. “You couldn’t make a sustainable business out of it.”
Depa and Jena were inspired to invent something to help for the long haul. Diabetes—chronic, complex, and rampant—seemed like a good place to start. “If you become diabetic, there are multiple stages and complications that happen over time,” says Depa. “It invariably happens once you set upon that path.” In 2011 he and Jena launched Jana Care (jana is the Sanskrit word for “people”) to develop affordable diabetes management tools.
Jana Care’s $20 Aina device attaches to smartphones and measures glycosylated hemoglobin, blood sugar, lipids, and creatinine levels from a drop of blood gleaned from a finger prick and applied to a single-use test strip. (Traditional laboratory analyzers cost $2,000 and require a phlebotomist.) A companion app called Habits delivers targeted educational content and health coaching tips. Doctors get each patient’s data in consolidated reports. Clinics stock up on the test strips, generating a revenue stream for Jana Care. The 65-employee company, which is funded by private investments and grants, has advisors at Mass General and partnerships with insulin maker Biocon and pump manufacturer Medtronic.
Shortly after Jana Care began taking off in 2012, Depa, who serves as its CTO, realized he would not have time to finish his PhD. “People overestimate the risk of jumping into a startup,” he likes to tell students when he visits campus. “It’s not very high if you have an MIT degree. That’s a huge safety net. You know you definitely can get another job—and there is no better way to build your skills early in your career than by working on a startup.”
Now based in Bangalore, Depa travels extensively, visiting his parents and sister in Montreal and shuttling between Jana Care’s R&D facility in Boston and Singapore, the company’s next market.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.