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April 10, 2014

Healthy Living 2.0

Startups in the health and wellness space are pioneering innovative ways to boost your health and happiness.
Amanda Chalifoux and Simone Silverbush

It’s a new era for healthy living. A startup called Hapilabs has created an electronic fork that tracks how quickly you eat and lights up when you’re eating too fast. McDonald’s plans to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into its menu over the next few years. Nike is developing shoes that automatically track steps. Google offers its employees an on-site ergonomic center. “Today people are more interested in living healthier lives than ever before and are more aware of the dangers of not doing so,” says Omar Haroun ’12, the chief revenue officer at Greatist, a health media startup.

Columbia Business talked to several alumni whose companies are finding new ways to promote health and wellness. Here are four trends to watch — and take advantage of as part of your own healthy living. “Pretty soon, we’ll no longer ask if people are tracking their health,” says Haroun, “but rather, in a world where everyone is keeping tabs on their health and fitness, what innovations are next?”

You, Quantified
So long, food diary. Innovations sprung from the quantified self movement — a dazzling number of devices, apps, and other technologies — allow you to track and analyze how many calories you eat, the number of steps you take, how well you slept, and other physiological processes, with little effort or conscious thought.

Melissa Wingard-Phillips ’13 (EMBA), an advisor to health startups, managed a crowdsourcing campaign this winter for one of her clients, Atlas, which will release its hotly anticipated fitness tracker later this year. The device, worn on your wrist, not only tracks your reps and how many calories you’ve burned but also uses sensors to determine which exercises you’re doing. “This fitness tracker puts everything else to shame,” Fast Company raved in January.

Another proponent of wearable tech, Switch2Health (S2H), inspires participants with rewards. Users of the company’s activity tracking wristband — or other leading health-tracking devices like Nike’s Fitbit — receive a code after 15 minutes of activity that can be redeemed for gift cards from Amazon, iTunes, and other popular retailers. “Rewards are key,” says Goutham Bhadri ’09, S2H’s vice president of business development. “Changing how people look at fitness — from a drain to something they actually look forward to — really helps increase participation.”

Startups in the quantified-self space are also finding innovative ways to help people with chronic diseases. Bluestar, for example, is an FDA-approved digital health product that is prescribed by a doctor for people with type 2 diabetes. It provides patients with personalized, real-time coaching — and updates their doctors so that they can optimize each treatment regimen.

“As the world begins to amass patient-centric data, it’s becoming increasingly important to do more than just collect or share it,” says Chris Bergstrom ’08, chief strategy and commercial officer at WellDoc, which created Bluestar. “We must meaningfully use the information.”

Care from Anywhere
Don’t feel like going to the doctor? Soon you may be able to skip the waiting room, not to mention the ride to the doctor’s office. While rural hospitals are already accessing expert care via telemedicine — technology that enables doctors to care for patients remotely — startups are finding ways for everyone to benefit.

ZipCare, founded by Steve Weissblum ’08, connects patients to participating primary care doctors via an online portal. Patients can get a doctor’s advice on common ailments like a rash or pink eye — without getting out of bed. “We offer access to a physician for less than half the cost of a traditional doctor in less than half the time,” Weissblum says. The fee-for-service site, which is in beta and will launch on several college campuses this fall, is an online version of the retail clinics that have recently sprung up in pharmacies. To expand the scope of ailments ZipCare can treat, Weissblum hopes to partner with companies developing diagnostic apps and devices — like an attachment that will turn an iPhone into an otoscope, the tool doctors use to diagnose ear infections.

“Pretty soon, we’ll no longer ask if people are tracking their health, but rather, in a world where everyone is keeping tabs on their health and fitness, what innovations are next?” -Omar Haroun ’12

Other startups are harnessing telemedicine’s potential to connect patients with specialized care. For Melissa Thompson ’11, that means getting patients the mental healthcare they need — and removing the stigma associated with mental illness. “In the United States, about 90 million people are underserved by mental healthcare,” says Thompson, whose startup, TalkSession, uses the first real-time video, HIPAA-compliant mobile technology to facilitate online counseling sessions. The company also uses a proprietary online diagnostic tool to help match patients with compatible practitioners. “We want to expand access to mental healthcare, increase the relevance of the patient-provider match, and integrate mental health into our conversations about overall health and wellness,” says Thompson, who was chosen by GE Ventures and Start-Up Health Academy as a “Healthcare Transformer” last year.

Since physicians must obtain multiple state licenses and adhere to different state laws to practice telemedicine across state lines, TalkSession’s online portal is currently open only to practitioners and clients in New York. “We can’t scale healthcare efficiently without changing regulations,” says Thompson, who, in September, made a case for updating outdated policies at a White House conference on breakthrough technology in behavioral healthcare. “In this case, technology has outpaced regulation.”

In the meantime, the company is working with existing markets nationwide to make them more efficient. TalkSession is enabling residents at an inpatient rehabilitation facility in Connecticut, for example, to receive remote treatment from their New Haven psychiatrists via tablet-based video twice a week — tripling their typical number of weekly sessions.

Beyond Expert Advice Online
As anyone who has Googled “antioxidant” or “omega 3 fatty acid” knows, there are hundreds of sites touting expert health recommendations. To stand out from the crowd, health media startups are developing niche content and pumping up opportunities for users to engage with their brands.

Take Greatist, a healthy living site whose friendly, informative articles on fitness, health, and happiness attract more than three million visitors a month — primarily via social media. Written for the young and “young at heart,” Greatist’s philosophy is that “you don’t have to be the greatest all the time, just a ‘greatist’ who makes healthier choices some of the time,” says Omar Haroun ’12, the company’s chief revenue officer. “What makes us different is that even though our content is written in a fun, relatable way, it’s also extremely high-quality.” Every fact is cited by a scientific study, and multiple experts approve each article before publication.

Last year, Greatist’s audience surpassed the number of readers of Self magazine’s digital edition. “We’re ahead of the curve in that we have one of the largest populations of consumers who are really interested in their health, and they trustour brand,” Haroun says. “What’s next is providing peoplewith products andservices that helpthem put their desireto live a healthier life into action.”

The company has a number of offerings in the pipeline and recently introduced Parcel, a monthly subscription box of hand-selected healthy living products related to Greatist content. (Think new organic tea and spice samples, environmentally friendly dish soap, fitness gear — and everything in between). “Ultimately we don’t see our future as just being a media or content company,” says Haroun. “We believe that what’s missing from this space is a product or service that enables people to live healthier lives by providing them with more than just information.”

Employees Who Are Healthy, Happy — and Productive
Community gardens, electric cars, sleep pods, healthy meals prepared by on-site chefs, an on-campus ergonomic center, even a chief happiness officer — by now you’ve probably heard about some of the perks Google offers its employees. As tech firms lure newly minted MBAs away from Wall Street, traditional companies are looking to lessons from Silicon Valley to compete for top talent.

“Thanks to companies like Facebook and Google, firms in every industry are realizing that they need to show people they care,” says Liz Wilkes ’13, whose startup, Exubrancy, designs custom in-office programs to boost employee engagement and productivity. “There’s an expectation that start-ups will offer extra programs that elevate the employee experience, and more established companies are finding that these programs are fairly easy to implement and have tremendous impact on employee satisfaction.”

Exubrancy’s offerings range from traditional group activities — yoga and meditation workshops, catered lunches, team-building retreats — to happenings you don’t usually associate with the office: sky-diving outings, pumpkin-carving contests, and a snack break with hand-torched S’mores. “The sky’s the limit,” says Wilkes, who launched Exubrancy while still a student at Columbia. As companies grapple with increasing healthcare costs, employee wellness also translates into big savings: a more productive work force. “Healthy people have fewer sick days and tend to be happier and easier to work with,” says Wilkes.

Goutham Bhadri ’09 of S2H also sees great potential in the employee wellness space. While S2H initially focused on the consumer market, over the past few years it has expanded its focus to employee health and wellness. “We think that if a company really wants to get their employees as healthy as possible, there’s a massive opportunity to scale to a global level,” Bhadri says.

In 2011, S2H launched the first phase of the Starbucks Challenge Workplace Walking program to a few hundred Starbucks employees in Seattle. The more participants walked — measured by a custom-branded Starbucks S2H pedometer — the better rewards they were able to redeem from the Starbucks S2H Challenge website. The program was so successful in raising participants’ levels of activity that plans are in the works to offer the challenge to Starbucks employees nationwide.

“Typical engagement in employee wellness programs is about 25 percent, but we’re seeing engagement rates of 40 percent in most of our programs,” says Bhadri. “It’s a tremendous shift in the mindset of people who are part of the program. Once you get into the habit of regular exercise, even just a small amount a day, it leads you to dream of bigger health achievements.”

Is your company an innovator in the health and wellness space? We’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at columbiabusiness@gsb.columbia.edu or tweet us at @Columbia_Biz.

Illustrations by Parko Polo