Technology

Mobile health? There’s an app for that

Davide Rossi, co-founder of FitBark, talked about his activity tracker for dogs.
Davide Rossi, co-founder of FitBark, talked about his activity tracker for dogs. The Kansas City Star

Graham Dodge's business idea hit him like the flu - suddenly.

The Baltimore resident recalls feeling sick but unsure whether it was food poisoning or a stomach virus. So he looked around on Facebook.

Sure enough. His friend in nearby Washington, D.C., had the same symptoms.

"That's when it occurred to me - what I was doing could be done on a much larger scale, " Dodge said.

Sickweather was born.

Dodge's website and mobile app produce localized maps of sickness outbreaks by tapping into the chatter on social media. In real time, they track everything from flu to pink eye and from strep throat to chicken pox.

Last week, Sickweather moved to Kansas City. For the next three months it will operate alongside nine other startups at the Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator at 210 W. 19th Terrace.

These 10 specially chosen fledglings will gain up to $120,000 in funding, share space, swap ideas, work with experts, pair with mentors and hone their business strategies - all with an eye toward impressing potential financial backers on Demo Day in June.

Sprint launched the business accelerator last September in Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District. It paired with Techstars to run the program.

It's a powerful combination, giving the startups access to Sprint's testing labs, research facilities and network engineers through programs backed by Techstars' record with accelerators in New York, Boston, Seattle and elsewhere.

The 10 companies they've assembled all deal with health - though not always human health - and run the gamut from wearables to medical record retrieval apps.

The teams arrived last week. John Fein, managing director of the accelerator, made sure each business team got to make an entrance and receive its own welcome.

Teams came in alphabetically, Akibah first and Yosko last, which means it enjoyed the largest welcoming party because it included all the other teams.

Geographically, they hail from around the United States and, in the case of Ollo Mobile, from Australia. None call Kansas City home, at least not yet.

Some may stick. It happens frequently at the accelerators Techstars has run.

"They build deep connections to the community and stay, " said Gregg Cochran, a director at Techstars who was in Kansas City last week for the teams' arrivals.

Dodge, who is 38 and the father of three boys, said that in just a few days he has found Kansas City to be safer and cleaner than home in Baltimore.

Baltimore, however, is where Sickweather connected with two medical advisers, a professor and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. With their help, Dodge said, the team has been able to validate Sickweather's Twitter findings with clinical flu data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Only recently have social media gained the critical mass needed to paint an accurate picture of an area's emerging collective health, he said. The kicker is that trends emerge on Twitter a few weeks sooner than in the CDC's data.

And Sickweather can push notifications through its app so users know when they're heading into an outbreak of some kind.

"We're really granular and hyper-local. We can tell you what's going around your immediate community, " Dodge said.

What's left to do?

Dodge sees the mobile app as Sickweather's strong suit and welcomes the chance to work with Sprint. He's also aware of Techstar's track record.

And then there is money.

"We tried to raise funding in Baltimore, and we were coming up against roadblocks, " Dodge said. "We just bootstrapped it the whole time."

Here's what two other accelerator businesses are working on.

FitBark

FitBark, another accelerator business, is based in New York. Most of its seven team members, however, are first generation Italian Americans.

Davide Rossi, 37 and the chief executive officer, came here for business school.

He'd been working in India's oil and gas industry before landing at the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2008.

"I really needed to fill training gaps in financing, accounting, economics - things I had never studied before, " Rossi said.

It led to a job as an investment banker, helping other companies raise capital or find mergers. Rossi saved some money and then called his sister, Sara Rossi, in Italy. The team came together mostly from among those he'd met here and who had come here with business ambitions.

"It was incredibly difficult to start a company in Italy, " Rossi said. "The entrepreneurial scene is quite immature."

FitBark sells a wearable fitness device for dogs, somewhat like the Nike+ FuelBand around Rossi's left wrist. He's used the device since it came out and has seen wearable technology get better, recently learning how to tell whether the wearer is doing push-ups or squats, or running.

"This is the way bracelets are getting smarter on the human side of things. And the same thing is going to happen with the pets, " Rossi said.

FitBark fits on a dog's collar and tracks the animal's behavior. It feeds the results to the company's servers, and the app makes it accessible to your cellphone or computer.

Alone, the dog's information is useful for an owner. Combined with others' it gains validity. FitBark is building behavior baselines for 250 breeds of dogs of all ages.

"We are a data company, " Rossi said. "Nobody knows, not even the vets know, what is typical in terms of activity points and sleep habits for a Yorkie of 7 pounds and 11 years of age, like I have."

The baselines give dog owners something to model their pet's behavior after, to set goals and help the animals achieve them.

Rossi also sees applications for veterinarians, for example, to monitor an animal's behavior after surgery.

But, just dogs?

"We are dog people, but nothing prevents us from targeting other species." Rossi said.

Some customers have put FitBark on cats. Others have asked about horses and bunnies. A university wants it for a study of penguins.

"We think dogs are interesting for us as a startup, as a company, " Rossi said. "The dog market is incredibly big."

Medicast

Sam and Nafis Zebarjadi have adapted modern technology to an old-fashioned idea. Medicast is a house-call app.

"There's no technology being used by a lot of house call physicians. It's still very much in an old-school way, which makes it very difficult for a lot of doctors to break into that, " said Nafis Zebarjadi, chief technology officer and the older of the two brothers.

The Medicast plan is to build a network of house-call doctors in a market. The app allows a consumer to request a doctor visit within two hours.

Their idea came up two years ago when the brothers were a continent apart.

Sam, who is 30, was working in Atlanta for Vodafone, a global telecom company, helping big companies innovate. Nafis, 36, worked for Google in the San Francisco Bay area.

They've built a prototype app and worked with a third co-founder, Sahba Ferdowsi, a family practice physician in Miami, to establish a pilot project there.

"We've got a small handful of physicians that are working closely with us to iron out all the kinks in the process and make sure we can deliver this at scale, " Nafis said. "The goal now is to begin expanding into other markets."

And that will mean recruiting physicians and doing background checks.

Medicast focuses on high-quality care, allowing the doctor to spend time with a patient rather than work through a day's appointment list. Sam called it concierge medicine.

Though that sounds expensive, the men said it can be affordable. By working with house call doctors, Medicast avoids perhaps half of the overhead costs of a traditional brick-and-mortar practice, Nafis said.

One appeal is to consumers with high-deductible health insurance. Medicast will provide a package including preventive and urgent care as well as doctor visits for $29 a month.

Medicast also has the potential to affect the health care system by handling many of the routine cases that can clog emergency rooms.

The app is available now, but until Medicast is up and running in a market, it provides locations of urgent care centers.

"We like to consider ourselves almost like urgent care on wheels, " said Sam, for whom the move to Kansas City is a bit of a homecoming.

He had worked for Nextel in Reston, Va., when it merged with Sprint years ago. It meant he spent a lot of time here, and since coming back, Sam has enjoyed "seeing old faces and friends and being part of this new launch that Sprint has done."

To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to mdavis@kcstar.com.

Companies at the accelerator

Akibah, San Jose, Calif. -Disrupting diabetes with a Bluetooth low energy-enabled smartphone case glucometer. www.akibah.com

FitBark, New York - Activity tracker for dogs to redefine the way pet owners know their pups. www.fitbark.com

Lifeline Response, Chicago - Personal safety app that uses natural human reaction to alert authorities. www.llresponse.com

Medicast, Palo Alto, Calif. - Doctors on demand. Delivers doctors to home, office, or hotel within two hours. www.medicast.co

Ollo Mobile, Brisbane, Australia - Wearable smartphone for healthier, safer families that monitors well being. www.ollomobile.net

Prime, San Francisco - App to instantly and automatically get health records from any doctor. www.stayinyourprime.com

Sickweather, Baltimore - Social health network providing sickness forecasting and mapping. www.sickweather.com

Symptom.ly, Salt Lake City - Symptom tracking platform for insurers, doctors and patients. www.symptom.ly

Tenacity Health, Boston - Builds wellness communities and reduces health care costs for organizations. www.tenacityhealth.us

Yosko, Cambridge, Mass. - Hospital solution that provides efficient patient care coordination. www.yosko.com

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