Mobile startups push health at Demo

Startups showed how smartphones could aid posture, fitness and African health care

Smartphones can help make people healthier, according to three startups that stood out among young mobile companies presenting their ideas at the Demo Fall conference this week.

Innovations aimed at promoting good posture, helping consumers get in shape and distributing more health information in the developing world were highlights in an afternoon of mobile-oriented pitches at Demo on Wednesday. The event in Santa Clara, California, featured a total of two days of startup presentations.

Better backs through Bluetooth

LumoBack showed off a patch that talks to a smartphone app and vibrates when the wearer stands, sits or walks with poor posture. The device, which is about two inches long and looks like an adhesive bandage made of fabric, is powered by a small lithium-ion battery and communicates with the phone via Bluetooth.

The app can display a stick figure that emulates the user's posture based on data from the patch, allowing the user to achieve the correct posture in real time. It can also score the user's posture over time, allow them to set goals and keep track of success, and report how much time they have spent sitting and standing, Chief Technology Officer Andrew Chang said.

"This changes our relationship with technology and with our phones," Chang said. "With Lumo, we are now wearing code."

How people stand is important because bad posture forces the lower back to carry the weight of the upper back instead of letting bones carry a person's weight, causing back pain, Chang said.

The LumoBack team, which includes physician Dr. Charles Wang, developed the concept after they were chosen by the Innovation Endeavors fund to spend six months finding a promising business idea, CEO Monisha Perkash said. It is talking with health, fitness and sports-related companies and hopes for a commercial launch of LumoBack in the middle of next year. The company aims to price the product so that all consumers can afford it, Perkash said.

Motivational messaging

Another health-related startup, called Poosh, is taking a less high-tech approach to health reminders, using SMS (Short Message Service) to send motivational messages to consumers who want to get in shape. The free, ad-supported Poosh service launched its public beta test at Demo.

The messages, which are written by "elite athletes," vigorously remind users to work out, said founder Milos Citakovic, who dropped to the stage and did a set of push-ups, in a suit, at the beginning of his presentation. The company's chief content development officer is Jaime Komer, who won a silver medal in women's water polo at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The messages are divided into specific categories for men's and women's weight loss, men's and women's general health, marathon training and a category called In Your Face, for users who decide they need additional motivation, Citakovic said. In its demonstration, Poosh showed an In Your Face message that read, "Get off your lazy butt and do 5 push ups right now!! Add 1 additional push up each day until you reach your max!"

Users can sign up to receive as many as three messages per day, and along with those, they will get one advertising message, which is targeted at health and fitness topics.

Medical information for Kenya

MedKenya is developing a mobile app that provides information about health and health-care workers in Kenya, a country with 40 million people and only 7,000 doctors, according to MedKenya entrepreneur Mbugua Njihia. "It means a lot of information in too few heads," Njihia said.

In addition, those doctors are prohibited from advertising their services. The lack of information about health and doctors in the country opens up the field to many unqualified practitioners, Njihia said.

But there are 25 million mobile-phone users in Kenya, 10 million of whom use mobile data, he said. MedKenya provides information about individual doctors and their qualifications, organized by specialization.

The app also provides basic information about possible health problems based on symptoms. Users can look up their symptoms to find out what might be causing them, Njihia said. That information can also link to the phone number of a specialist in that particular area.

MedKenya is available in apps for Android, Symbian and feature phones, as well as via the mobile Web and SMS (short message service). Within five years, MedKenya aims to be on 200 types of mobile devices and generating about US$2 billion per year, Njihia said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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