Northwell invests $3M in AI firm seeking to better understand patients’ emotions

speech, speech bubbles, talk

speech, speech bubbles, talk

Northwell Holdings — the venture capital arm of Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York state — says it is focused on making investments in innovative companies that improve patient care and generate diversified revenue streams for the health system.

The venture fund’s latest investment was in Hume AI, an AI startup that focuses on vocal and nonverbal communication. Northwell poured $3 million into the company last week.

The investment aligns with Northwell Holdings’ mission because it will lead to the development of AI models to better understand patients’ vocal and nonverbal communications, Rich Mulry, the investment fund’s CEO and president, said in an interview.

Hume creates machine learning tools using natural language understanding, a subset of natural language processing that deals with machine reading comprehension. The startup did not respond to our request for comment by the time of this article’s publication, but its website claims that it outperforms natural language understanding models that simply convert speech into text. Hume AI does this by accounting for the fact that the meaning of someone’s speech can be drastically changed by their tone and rhythm, as well as by nonverbal expressions like sighs, gasps and laughs.

Capturing a patient’s speech beyond a mere transcript is especially important when it comes to understanding conditions like pain, depression and cognitive impairment, according to the startup.

Northwell’s researchers will work with Hume to validate its technology’s use in clinical settings and explore which applications will be most impactful before it advances use of the startup’s tools across the entire enterprise, Mulry said. It’s The hope is that the technology will eventually help its caregivers have an improved understanding of patients’ expressive communication during every step of their care journey, from diagnosis and treatment.

Mulry and his team made the choice to invest in Hume over its competitors in the natural language understanding space — which include Affectiva and Opsis Emotion AI — for two key reasons. 

The first is that they thought Hume’s scientific team was strong — the startup is led by Alan Cowen, an emotion scientist and former researcher at Google and the University of California Berkeley. Cowen has published research in several journals that focuses on nuance within human expressive behavior. This research explores how human expressions involve complex patterns in language, rhythm, syllable stress, speech intonation, chuckles, sighs and the movement of more than 30 facial muscles.

The second reason has to do with how Hume’s AI models were trained. To transform Cowen’s research into useful AI models, the startup collected data from around the world to characterize the intricacies of expressive communication across cultures.

“Really the component that is most impressive is that Hume’s models have been trained to analyze emotion across very diverse ages and demographic groups, which can help remove bias as well as misinterpretation,” Mulry said. “This is important because Northwell has a very rich and diverse patient base.”

Northwell’s deal with Hume is not the only million-dollar investment the health system has made in the past few months. In July, the health system invested $10 million in Brightline, a telehealth company that provides pediatric mental health care. Northwell has also recently participated in the multi-million dollar funding rounds for pre-visit clinical intake automation company Health Note, as well as Violet, a culturally competent credentialing and clinician education platform for clinicians.

Photo: Creative-Touch, Getty Images