Sehreen Noor Ali is a co-founder of Sleuth, at HelloSleuth.com, a platform for parents to understand their kids’ health. She and I have been friends for several years, having met through an online group. I have been fascinated by her journey launching Sleuth. We spoke over Zoom about what Sleuth is and where it’s going. Here is our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us what Sleuth is.
Sehreen Noor Ali
Sleuth is a platform for parents to get data for every symptom and stage of their children’s health from zero to 17. It is a platform where our vision is to transform kids’ health, through crowdsourced experiences of parents.
Brilliant. So why did you start this? Is there an origin story?
There’s a strong origin story that comes in a couple of threads.
I really struggled to get information, when both my daughters were young, about their development. I didn’t know what was normal. What’s funny is that parents actually have tons of questions about their kids’ health but don’t take most of them to experts; they mostly go online first and hope they fine something.
And for one kid the lack of info kind of worked out, but for the other kid, not knowing did not work out. And she ended up getting a very delayed diagnosis because I didn’t have the right information at my fingertips when I needed it. And it was so severe, the lack of good information, that I actually left my job.
So … I left my job, and did not have a salary, and was trying to figure out her care. For a lot of people, that equation literally does not work out. How can you not have a salary, but need to figure out your kid’s health?
‘Parents are an underserved market’
So what you did was turn around and found this world-changing company?
It was nagging me, you know — why is it that the best information I’m getting is on Facebook groups?
I got help figuring out what specialists to go to, what I should look for, from parents who had been there, done that. And it was both really valuable information and really messy information. And I didn’t have a lot of time. You’re basically sifting through this data as you read it at 3 in the morning.
So after I had gotten my daughter’s care set up, I instead of going back into ed tech, which is the sector I was in, I joined a startup incubator program. I brought this opportunity to other potential founders who were in the program.
It was like, “Look, parents are an underserved market for information. You think you have all this information at your fingertips, but you actually don’t. And lastly, people are filling the gap with crowdsourced information.”
What I didn’t know: When I met my now co-founder, Alex Leeds, he’s like, “It makes total sense that crowdsourced information would be where people find what they’re looking for. Because from a data science perspective, when you do crowdsourced information correctly, from a subset of people, it’s highly accurate.”
Fast forward to right now: What we’ve done is crowdsource 62,000 health histories directly from caregivers. We have them, in their own words, describing their child’s health and development. Over 285 topics.
Whoa, that’s mind-blowing.
It is mind-blowing.
‘I got into Mama Bear mode’
Can you tell me a story about the people — a person or several persons that you’ve met along the way?
There’s one story that really stands out to me – a woman I spoke to whose daughter had Covid. And she got this rare condition caused by Covid called Mis-C, which needs to be treated in a timely manner, because it can be deadly.
She referred to herself as uneducated. And when she was telling me the story, she said, “There was a moment in the hospital when someone told me that my child had cancer, and I knew it wasn’t cancer and I got into Mama Bear mode.”
She said, “That’s when I really had to start showing people that I knew my kid.”
She went through this entire, terrible journey where she was told her child was going to die of cancer. And she was like, no — actually, she knew the condition better than the hospital administrators and the physicians that she met there, because she had seen her child go through it. And also it was a new condition.
In an earlier iteration of Sleuth, we had parents write their story, on Sleuth, but she never felt comfortable doing it. She asked me to write it for her. She said, “I’m just not that educated.” And I said, “Oh, my goodness, wait — you are SO informed.”
The way that we as a society have discounted caregivers is actually kind of crazy, because the amount of information they have about how to treat a condition and care for a condition is amazing. It’s a lot of useful and valuable knowledge.
Another parent that I recently spoke to — when our product was not as full as it now – she said, “I’ve been using your app to talk my pediatrician for a really long time, because there’s nowhere else I can capture this information and actually show the trajectory of what’s going on with my child’s ADHD symptoms.”
It’s filling in the gaps in ways that I had hoped it would. But I’m still very pleasantly surprised.
‘Building something I so believe in’
That’s fabulous. So what have been your greatest joys?
(Laughs) I’m laughing because it’s so hard to build a business.
My greatest joy is my kids — hands down, my kids.
And secondly, it’s that I get to build something I really believe in. I think it is such an immense privilege to be able to be in the right spot in the universe at the right time, with the right people, building something I so believe in.
I remember in my 20’s yearning to work for something that I felt like I was aligned with, and I could uniquely do. And I think my biggest joy is that I get to do this.
I wouldn’t be doing anything else, despite how hard it is.
Early on, ‘a lot of head-patting’
That’s great. How about your greatest challenges?
I don’t think it’s easy for anyone to start a business, particularly a parent or a caregiver. The demand and the time is huge. We are expected to work like we don’t have other responsibilities, and we’re supposed to caregive like we don’t have work.
I got a lot of head-patting in the beginning of Sleuth, that people said, “It’s so cute that you’re working on kids’ health, and it’s inspired by your story.”
You know, I internalized that, like there was something that I could do to present myself differently. But actually, it’s just the bias we have in the ecosystem. And so navigating all of that, to really present this.
We’re sitting on a massive market. We’re sitting on a massive problem. I don’t need my head patted. And navigating to get that story out – that a was a big challenge in the beginning.
Your responses from parents, I assume have been wildly enthusiastic. What about clinicians?
Clinicians are very interested, actually, in what we’re building. I think that they see us as a communication tool, as a touchpoint to what’s happening with the child in between visits.
I have heard from clinicians, that when parents refer to a great speech therapist or an occupational therapist, that the clinician actually starts creating their own list, because they think so highly of parent-vetted resources.
The science behind what we’re doing is really solid. And the pediatricians we’re working with are highly enthusiastic. They think it’s fabulous. And teachers, too.
Pediatricians and educators
And teachers. Wow, I didn’t think about education. Actually, yes, I can imagine that. Separate from parents contributing, do you have clinicians and teachers who are contributing stories? Or is it almost exclusively parents?
Right now, it’s exclusively parents. There is a section on Sleuth that is focused on successful strategies that parents have used. All of that is vetted by a pediatrician. But in terms of contributing stories, right now, we don’t have that.
I have heard that a desired use case is, let’s say there’s a child, and the parent and the teacher are trying to really understand how the child is behaving at school and at home, and that it can almost serve as a communication vehicle. The teacher can track how the student is doing and the parent can track.
We don’t have that capability right now. But I’ve heard from educators that that’s something that they would find useful, because teachers have such a strong touch point with students, but they’re not diagnosticians. We’re not diagnosticians, either. But what we can do is really capture the observations and help parents see the patterns and know the benchmarks so that there’s a continuity of understanding what’s happening, and it helps them help the family.
ADHD looks different for girls
That’s brilliant. I can imagine how that could be extraordinarily Important. Can you tell us some more examples of people that you’ve helped along the way? I love these individual examples.
Sure! So there is a parent who suspected that their child’s behaviors looked like ADHD. Our ADHD questionnaire divides a child’s symptoms into five different areas. And the reason it’s divided into five different areas is that when we surveyed 2,200 parents of children with ADHD, when they described the child’s symptoms, it ended up falling into these five buckets.
So that when someone actually comes in, they can see if their child is hyperactive. Or that their ADHD doesn’t look like that, they can see if they score highly in another area.
We have notions that ADHD looks a certain way, like just hyperactivity, but for many — like young girls — they don’t fit the stereotype, but have other less-known symptoms which our quizzes can capture.
So then that parent took it to the pediatrician and said, “Hey, listen, I’ve been telling you that I think that my child needed to be looked at and examined for ADHD behavior. And here are the answers across these five different areas with numerical scores across these five areas, comparing a child’s score to the scores of children on Sleuth that have been diagnosed with ADHD, and to all children.”
So there are two levels of scores, and this parent actually advocated for more care for their child that way. I hear a lot of stories like that.
Also, there was another person who wanted to know if their 3-year-old’s hitting was normal. They’re very concerned. They’re like, why is my kid hitting me? Is there something wrong? Are they going to be a sociopath? And then — they use our data, and learn it’s actually totally normal for a 3-year-old to hit their parent.
That’s good to know. I’m sure a lot of people are going to do much better hearing that.
Insights into pediatric health
So where do you see Sleuth in 5 years or in 10 years?
In five years, I think Sleuth will be the number one resource for parents’ questions on what’s going on with their child’s health. Instead of going to Google first, they will come to Sleuth.
In 10 years, my vision is that we will be in a place where we’re actually contributing insights into pediatric health – we are actually saying things that we didn’t know before, things we are seeing in our data.
For example, a lot of kids get diagnosed late. So it is very important to see, for example, in our data that parents first observed their child’s ADHD symptoms, when they look retroactively, around the age of 5. That’s not common knowledge right now.
I think that we are going to be able to see so many more patterns, like things from like sensory development, things related to eating, related to something else. And I think we will understand kids more, not just kids who we think are sick, but just kids in general.
There’s so much going on. Covid had an impact, for example. I think it’ll be generative in that way so we can correlate events like that to what’s going on in how kids are experiencing life.
Advice for other founders
What advice do you have for people who have a passion for founding a world-changing company like Sleuth?
I think my number one piece of advice is to work with a great co-founder. That has been game-changing for me. I could not and would not do this without a co-founder. The team mentality of it has really helped us survive the hard times.
The second is to have a healthy mix of realism and idealism in your approach. There are just certain principles about how businesses grow, and yet you have to really believe in what you’re doing – almost irrationally – to stick with it.
How can Sleuth help you?
When I think of people you’re helping — the parents, the children, the grandparents, the doctors, the teachers, the nurses, the therapists. It just seems so large. How can people who are reading this help you? How can we help you?
I think we’re early. And I want to hear from parents about where they feel the gaps are in understanding their kids’ health.
We’re agile. We can move very quickly. We have a very talented team.
And just like you mentioned, like, “oh, wow, that’s so interesting. I didn’t think about an education context.” I didn’t either — someone actually helped me realize that’s where it was. And then we got inbound from teachers on that.
So I would love to know where we can continue to help when you think about our expertise being AI, data and really understanding caregivers.
So how should people then join Sleuth or come to with questions or offers to help?
So people can download the app either for Android or Apple on HelloSleuth.com, and it’s $55 a year. We are giving it away to communities for whom cost is a barrier. So if you are a school leader and want it for your school families, DM me on HelloSleuth on Instagram or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are also looking for founding members to work on this early part of it and help us tweak a couple of things. They can also message me or email me.
What does the founding member then do?
We’ll have three different touch points with founding members. We’ll will have a very quick phone call with them. And then we will survey them twice on the kind of information that we’re surfacing and whether it meets their needs in that moment. It’s a 90-minute commitment over three months. In exchange, they’ll get lifetime access to Sleuth, which is worth $55 a year.
So kind of like an advisory council?
Yeah, kind of like an advisory council, but a large one.
‘Caregivers are very valuable’
O.K. My final question is: What thoughts would you like to leave readers with? Did I miss any big points?
The point that I would want to reinforce is that caregivers are very valuable. I feel very passionate about the fact that what they have learned through their experience is often dismissed. But it’s actually proven otherwise, that is very valuable because the insights that come out are accurate and reliable and can very directly help another person in a similar situation