Hacker with Former Slashdot Ties and Tech Entrepreneur Tackle Home Health Hurdles With Web-Based Eldersync

6/7/10

David Bernick saw his mom’s struggles in coordinating care for his elderly grandmother. His mom relied on spreadsheets and Post-It notes to organize his grandmother’s visits with doctors, home health workers, and physical therapists. “This is a lot of stuff to keep track of,” Bernick says. “This is a real problem and it’s only going to get worse.”

Bernick, a 33-year-old hacker and veteran software engineer, says he has been working in earnest since January to develop Web-based software that supports those in the trenches of home health care: home nursing agencies and doctors, as well as patients and their family members. He and his business partner, Neil Aresty, have formed Eldersync.com in Boston to commercialize the technology. Aresty, a lawyer by training, previously co-founded and served as chief executive at the Boston legal software firm Lextranet, which was sold to the St. Paul, MN-based business services outfit Merrill in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Bernick says that he was one of Aresty’s first technical employees at Lextranet.

Two home health firms began to test a beta version of Eldersync last month, Bernick says, and he’s looking for more agencies to try it out. Health workers can use the Web-based system to schedule visits with patients in their homes, can verify via text message or phone call to the system that they’ve seen a patient, and can file notes on a patient’s status to the system using any Internet-connected device. The plan is to also sync the online system with a patient’s home health monitoring devices. So caregivers or family members who have a patient’s permission can, say, tap that patient’s online Eldersync dashboard to check his blood sugar levels or heart rate.

Beyond seeing a need for their technology in their own families, Aresty and Bernick discovered that home health agencies present a large initial market for Eldersync. The agencies are growing rapidly in part because of efforts around the nation to provide care for people in their homes to reduce expensive hospital stays, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, which projects that the number of home health workers will grow from the 1.74 million counted in 2008 to 2.58 million by 2018.

That means many potential users for Eldersync. The company expects to begin marketing its system to home health firms in July, Bernick says. At least for now, the plan is for agencies to pay a nominal monthly fee for each employee who uses the system on a regular basis. The company’s software will be delivered over the Internet as a service, as opposed to software that requires users to install and manage it on their own servers. Bernick says that the agencies would pay less for Eldersync than for traditional software.

Still, the startup’s product is a work in progress. Bernick is gathering feedback from beta users and making changes to Eldersync to suit their needs. Meanwhile, the two-man outfit is being funded out of the founders’ own pockets. (Bernick says Eldersync is open to receiving outside investment, but is not actively pursuing new investors at this time.) Though Bernick sometimes serves as an IT and network security consultant (full disclosure: he’s done some pro-bono work for Xconomy), he says that he’s been dedicating a lot of his time to Eldersync since January. Aresty joined Eldersync last month, after leaving Merrill, where he had served in the company’s legal software unit after the Lextranet buyout.

As Eldersync ramps up its efforts, it’s keeping its eye other Web startups focused on the home healthcare market, Bernick says. RemCare is one such competitor with Boston roots. Ben Albert, RemCare’s co-founder and CEO, was previously an executive at the Newton, MA-based physician software firm PatientKeeper. (Albert didn’t return my call, so I’m not sure where his startup is headquartered, but his LinkedIn profile says he’s in the Chicago area.) Another startup on Bernick’s radar with Boston ties is Baltimore-based Ankota, which unveiled its Web-based software that supports logistics for home health agencies in July 2009. Ankota’s chief technology officer, Ken Accardi, is based in the Boston area, Bernick says. Accardi was previously a technology executive at GE Healthcare.

Eldersync and its counterparts are trying to elbow in on established players in the market such as San Diego-based HomeTrak and Santrax, headquartered in Port Washington, NY. Bernick points out that both these firms sell software that home health agencies have to install and manage themselves. HomeTrak also requires that its customers run its software on Windows servers, which can add further costs.

While Aresty and Bernick are new to the healthcare arena, Bernick, says that they encountered some similar regulatory and security challenges at Lextranet. Lextranet provides Web-based software to support electronic discovery and case management for law firms.

“We came from a legal document market where security, ease of use, searching, and aggregating are all key,” Bernick said in an e-mail, “so [Eldersync] was a natural transition.”

For sure, there appears to be a gold rush to the healthcare industry among software entrepreneurs nowadays. Yet Bernick says that Eldersync is staying clear of business areas such ambulatory electronic health records—which the government is subsidizing to the tune of about $19 billion over the next several years—where markets are crowded with competitors.

Bernick also seems to recognize the makings of tech market bubbles, having experienced them about a decade ago. He was an early programmer and employee at Question Exchange, a short-lived dot-com in the Boston area that had an online marketplace where people paid experts to answer their questions. In 1999, VA Linux (now Geeknet) acquired Question Exchange during a website buying frenzy that included the geek news site Slashdot.org and the online Linux news outfit Freshmeat.net. Bernick says he collaborated with Slashdot, Freshmeat, and other VA Linux sites until he left the company in mid-2000. Before he left, Bernick says he witnessed the excesses of the ill-fated dot.com craze.

“We were in a one-room office that was 200 square feet and then we got acquired and three days later were at China Club in New York City with a laser show with the logo of our company,” Bernick says. “That’s when I knew the dot-com thing was going to end pretty soon.”

To hear Bernick, Eldersync is taking a conservative approach to business growth. He does much of the firm’s coding at his Back Bay condo. He says that the firm, while open to raising money now, may not bring in outside investors until it wants the capital to fund sales efforts. To begin sales, though, the startup needs to make sure that its online service delivers the value it promises to home health firms and their patients.

“I think we’re going to an era where we expect to look at our computers and have a dashboard that’s going to meet our needs and the needs of the people around us,” Bernick says. “We do that every morning when we look at Facebook, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t get the same experience when we want to check on [mom's health].”

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