Healthrageous Snags $6M to Combat Unhealthy Behaviors

6/9/10

We eat ice cream before bedtime. Sleep in rather than rising early to jog. And forget to take our medicine. Those are three of many unhealthy behaviors that cause millions of Americans to become obese, diabetic, and plain sick. Enter Healthrageous, which says it has scooped up $6 million in a Series A venture round to advance its technology-driven approach to changing peoples’ unhealthy behaviors.

Healthrageous (previously called HopSkipConnect) is a spinout of Partners Center for Connected Health, the unit of Partners HealthCare System in Boston that studies the use of technologies like text messages and the Internet to keep people healthy outside of hospitals and other traditional clinical settings. The startup’s software is designed to automatically give people personalized advice to help them reach health goals such as losing weight, lowering blood pressure, or controlling their diabetes.

North Bridge Venture Partners, of Waltham, MA, and San Mateo, CA, led the startup’s first-round financing, which also included investments from Boston-based Egan-Managed Capital and Long River Ventures in Amherst, MA. Rick Lee, a veteran managed healthcare executive, is CEO of Healthrageous (and a speaker at Xconomy’s XSITE innovation forum next week—register here). He said the new financing enables the startup, which is temporarily operating from North Bridge’s Waltham office until it finds its own digs in the Boston area, to hire more engineers and other staff. It also plans to develop a mobile application that would allow people to access its services on their smartphones.

Healthrageous plans to design health programs for self-insured companies, disease-management firms, and other customers. For a company with a high number of diabetics, Lee said, his firm could offer a program in which diabetics could monitor their blood sugar with wireless glucose meters. People could log their blood-sugar readings with the firm’s online software, which they could access with any Internet-connected computer. The firm’s software would provide automated feedback to each user based on their individual health data. The system’s feedback would be sent to the person over the Web, via text message, or even with traditional mail delivery, Lee said. The firm also plans to incorporate a social networking component for people to share their progress with their peers.

“If we can make healthcare fun and different and something that people want to own as opposed to something that people want to shirk and blame their employer and doctor for, we’ve really achieved something,” Lee says.

Can technology be used to significantly change our unhealthy behaviors? It’s a multibillion-dollar question in healthcare, tackled in plenty of PhD dissertations, and researched at places like the Center for Connected Health and the MIT Media Lab. At Healthrageous, Lee said, the plan is to change people’s behavior by providing them with feedback about their health condition that is timely, personalized, and contextual. To help do this, the company has designed its system to be compatible with 60 different devices such as pedometers, accelerometers, glucose meters, blood pressure cuffs, and other sensors that people use to record data about their health conditions.

Skeptics might scoff at using gadgets, networks, and fancy algorithms to curb people’s bad habits. To a certain extent, Healthrageous could quell some of that skepticism with the evidence it has already gained from studies led by the Harvard doctors who helped develop its technology. (The Harvard dermatologist Joseph Kvedar, a founder of the startup and the director of the Center for Connected Health, is a nationally recognized authority on telemedicine and the use of technology in caring for patients remotely.)

The Center for Connected Health tested Healthrageous’s technology in a 400-person pilot study at the Hopkinton, MA-based data storage giant EMC (NYSE:EMC), focusing on employees with high blood pressure, or hypertension, in 2007 and 2008. In the study, which included a control group that did not use the system, 69.2 percent of people who used Healthrageous’s wireless blood pressure cuff and automated coach reduced their blood pressure, according to the company. The firm did say what results were reported for the control group.

Lee says that EMC is expected to become a customer of Healthrageous, but the company has not yet signed a contract to pay for the firm’s services. However, he said, Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary has agreed to hire the firm and begin one of its programs for its employees in mid-July. The company plans to hire more salespeople over the next year to expand its customer base, the CEO said.

While the startup faces stiff competition for customers from large disease-management and wellness outfits, Healthrageous has some internal expertise in the healthcare management game. Lee has spent the last three decades in the business, recently as a division president of Magellan Health Services, where he says he created a wellness program that focused on behavior change. Mary Beth Chalk, the startup’s chief of strategy, was previously director of business development at Pfizer Health Solutions, the disease-management arm of the New York-based drug giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE).

Xconomy has been following this venture since it was a glimmer in Kvedar’s eye last winter, and the doctor was still deciding whether to start the company. We’ll see whether Healthrageous has the right mix of technology and executive talent to get more Americans to curb their unhealthy habits.

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