The genius of Facebook—and one of the reasons it is worth more than $50 billion—is that it effortlessly collects huge volumes of information by offering people a place to socialize. Healthrageous, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thinks it may be possible to perform a similar feat in health care.
The company, launched in 2010 by physicians associated with Harvard Medical School, offers its users digital health-tracking devices including wireless pedometers, blood pressure monitors, and bathroom scales. Clients use the tools to gather data about themselves and upload it to a website where they can track progress toward goals, get wellness tips, and receive encouragement from friends, coworkers, and family members.
The startup is an offshoot of the small but growing “quantified self” movement, whose members believe that using sensors and recording gadgets to constantly collect data about themselves will lead to better choices about their health and behavior.
Companies such as Healthrageous are now testing whether self-tracking—for health or other reasons—can be sold as a larger-scale social experience to employers or the general public. And as with Facebook, says Healthrageous CEO and cofounder Rick Lee, data collected about user behavior may be “the most valuable asset in the company.”
“When you start to do large data crunches with different variables and human characteristics, you get some interesting data that would be fascinating in the hands of pharmaceutical researchers looking to develop new drugs,” he says.
It’s not yet clear how big a business self-quantification will turn out to be. Nike tapped into a large market with its wireless pedometers (which relay data from a running shoe to an iPod); many other firms are attempting to build communities through games or free apps to track health problems, although most still have relatively few users.
“Anyone who can code software can write a self-quantification app; the question is who can move the world and change business with it,” says Paul Wicks, head of research and development for PatientsLikeMe, a site where 115,000 patients with serious illnesses now track their symptoms and medications.
Healthrageous grew out of a 2008 study by researchers at the Center for Connected Health, a division of Partners HealthCare, that focused on people with hypertension who worked for the computing company EMC. These employees were asked to keep track of their blood pressure at home, and participants got feedback on their progress. The program proved so successful at lowering blood pressure that an independent reviewer estimated a three-to-one financial return, predicting that some EMC staffers would avoid heart attacks and strokes as a result of feedback they received.
On the basis of that success, the center’s director, Joseph Kvedar, decided to commercialize the technology. It consists of an interactive software platform that collects data from wireless health-tracking sensors such as pedometers and glucose monitors. The information is uploaded to Healthrageous’s website, where it is then analyzed and returned to the user via smart phone within a few seconds.
Those data streams allow Healthrageous to give customized advice. For example, the program might ask whether a user wants to lower blood pressure through diet and exercise or with the help of medication. “We could then respond to those who say they want to do it naturally and say research has found that people who exceed 10,000 steps per day have a greater likelihood of bringing systolic blood pressure down to 120,” says Lee. Users would then try to increase the amount they walk and wear pedometers to assess whether they were succeeding, with the software providing encouragement in a variety of ways.
Healthrageous is currently marketing its service to large employers and health plans and charging them per-user fees. So far, Lee says, the company has seven clients—including the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary—and about 1,600 users who will generate approximately $500,000 in revenue this year. But Lee says that Healthrageous, which has raised $8.5 million from investors, has plans to open the service to the general public next year.
Lee believes Healthrageous’s value will increase dramatically if more people begin using the service. That’s already happened with companies like Google and Netflix, whose algorithms build on users’ previous behavior to customize ads or movie suggestions. “We need large volumes of people moving through the system so we can hone pattern recognition technology we have been developing,” he says. “If we can match up who you are with changes you focus on, then we can start to map key personal characteristics that lead to successful behavioral change.”
The real-life data collected by such services is already proving enticing to marketers. PatientsLikeMe makes money by selling users’ health data to pharmaceutical companies. Jacqueline Thong, founder of Ubiqi, a startup that developed a free phone app migraine sufferers can use to track what sets off their headaches, says she’s also been approached by organizations interested in tapping the company’s database.
Other self-tracking companies are making their databases available to developers for free, with the hope that they will create new apps that bring in more users. For instance, Zeo, a startup located in Newtonville, Massachusetts, currently makes its money by selling a popular sleep-tracking device. But Zeo also claims to have amassed the largest at-home sleep database in the world. It has opened up that database to developers and scientists so they can conduct their own research or integrate Zeo’s device with other self-tracking systems.
As it has with Facebook, selling personal data is certain to raise privacy concerns. Healthrageous’s Lee says his company plans to market the insights it gleans from its data, rather than the raw data itself. PatientsLikeMe, however, explicitly tells users that any information they share—except identifying details, such as name and e-mail address—may be shared with pharmaceutical companies or other partners. Given that PatientsLikeMe has more than 100,000 members, users seem confident that the tools it offers, and the hope of medical advances generated from their data, are worth the loss of privacy.