What’s Brewing at Massive Health? A Chat with Newly Funded Co-Founders Sutha Kamal and Aza Raskin

2/2/11Follow @wroush

Forget stealth mode—these days the coolest pre-launch Silicon Valley companies are in ninja mode. That’s how Sutha Kamal, the CEO of San Francisco-based Massive Health, describes his situation in a blog post today announcing the company’s $2.25 million seed funding round.

Luckily, I got Kamal and co-founder Aza Raskin to come far enough out of their ninja-turtle shells to tell me a little bit about the company and its plans, which center on using mobile apps to help people with chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease take charge of their own health. The company expects to release its first app sometime this year, Kamal said.

Certainly, these guys have plenty of street cred on the software, wireless, and product design sides. Kamal managed mobile strategy and product design at TransGaming Technologies, a Canadian iPhone game developer, and ran a mobile content portal called Ambient Vector. Raskin was the head of user experience at Mozilla Labs and ultimately became creative lead for the Firefox browser. After leaving Mozilla in December to start Massive Health, Raskin blogged that “healthcare needs to have its design renaissance,” and said he wanted to apply his experience building products that are “disruptively easier and more enjoyable to use” to the challenge of helping people stay healthy.

But exactly how a team of three product-and-programming guys (Kamal and Raskin are joined by engineering lead Doug Soo, formerly of Linden Lab) plans to disrupt the notoriously complex, messy, and intractable economy of U.S. healthcare isn’t clear yet. Judging from Kamal’s post, the company’s apps will incorporate all the fashionable elements you might expect—crowdsourcing, game mechanics, the social graph, data analysis, and “tight feedback loops”—but in ways that aren’t reminiscent of today’s social-networking apps. “We’re not proposing giving you a badge for eating your broccoli or letting you check-in and become duke of ranch dressing,” Kamal writes, in a cheeky dig at Foursquare.

That seems to have been enough to convince investors. The unusually large seed round—which is almost Series A-sized—comes from an all-star team of venture investors, including Mohr Davidow Ventures, Greylock Partners’ Discovery Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, Aydin Senkut’s Felicis Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and the Collaborative Fund, as well as a group of “amazing angels” that the company hasn’t identified.

Now that the company has some money to throw around, it says it’s hiring—current job listings call for a “Front-End(ish) Engineer” and a “Back-End(ish) Engineer.” Applicants should be able to “run with the ball without guidance but know when to pass or assist,” the startup’s site says, but winningly adds, “Getting sports analogies shouldn’t be your strong point.”

Here’s a writeup of my brief conversation today with Kamal and Raskin.

Xconomy: You guys have managed to stay pretty deep in stealth mode. What are you up to, and what will the new funding help you do?

Aza Raskin: We looked at the state of the world and realized that 90 percent of U.S. healthcare costs go to 15 percent of patients—people with diabetes, weight loss problems, hypertension, heart disease. We are trying to create fantastically user-centric products that tackle these really hard problems that are going to be the pandemics of our times. The reason we raised as much as we did, $2.25 million as a seed round, was to give us the leeway to make products that actually change users’ behavior. Why is it that you can have fantastically designed products when you want to make a phone call or listen to music, but when you’re sick you’re back to something that feels clinical and sterile? It’s no wonder people have trouble changing their behavior.

X: Isn’t one of the problems that there’s a fundamentally separate economy for healthcare? As soon as someone gets sick, it’s no longer consumer themselves making choices and paying the costs, it’s doctors making choices and insurers paying. In a market like that, how do you build products that restore individual control?

AR: There’s an analogy here, and I say it with humility—I’m about to compare us with Apple, so take it with a grain of salt. But if you look at the telephony space of even a couple of years ago, a lot of companies had to pander to the carriers, and they couldn’t make a product that focused on the person. Apple changed all that. So when we look at the health space, we see an analogy. Many companies work on the clinical side of things first. We want to flip that around and work with people first and the clinical side second.

Sutha Kamal: We’re going after a problem that’s been pretty difficult, but there are a couple of novel things going on in the landscape. Healthcare costs have been rising faster than inflation, but for the last few years some employers have begun to move a few of those costs back to employees, so people have having to take more responsibility. Through healthcare savings accounts they’re being given a tax-free way to save for their healthcare. So people are being given specific forms of control. And two-thirds of large employers are looking for ways to pay people to take better care of their health. We have a couple of novel approaches to helping with this, and that is why investors are coming to us.

X: What are those novel approaches?

AR: One of the major problems with medicine as it stands now is that you spend, on average, 7 minutes per visit with your physician. The average person with diabetes spends one minute talking about their blood glucose with their physician. That’s not enough time to determine trends or even to ask a simple question like “What can I do today to make my life better than it was yesterday?” But Silicon Valley is full of data geeks. We are data geeks. We can correlate all the activities you do—whether it’s exercise or controlling your blood sugar or your weight—to the kinds of actions that make your life better.

SK: One of the beautiful things about mobile is that you have this proliferation of really cheap sensors. Think about your smartphone—it has a camera, an accelerometer, GPS, a gyroscope. We are at an inflection point on the hardware side where the average consumer can have a lot of sensors gathering data about things impacting their health. We can take that and build things of real value and help them make the changes they need to make.

X: Tell me why you chose to take money from these specific investors.

SK: MDV is a great partner because they get healthcare and technology in a really deep way. We are taking a different approach to healthcare; we look and talk and walk like a software company, but we are focusing on healthcare problems, and they get that. We are also a big Internet company, in terms of our product, so getting some of the best Internet investors was really important to us. Having Greylock and Andreessen Horowitz on board is really helpful to us, because these are guys who really understand how you scale to epic sizes. Aydin Senkut at Felicis Ventures helped grow Google from its tiny kernel of 20 people to a huge company and understands how you build the right team and do tremendous deals with others.

AR: In the end we were overcommitted by a good amount for this raise, and we were in the extremely lucky position of being able to pick and choose who we thought were the very best investors. One we have is Collaborative Fund, which invests in sustainable social-good ventures. Being able to put these kinds of people around the table is a unique advantage.

X: So, you’ve hinted that you’re making mobile apps that help people with chronic health conditions through some kind of data collection and analysis. Who do you see as the paying customers? Are you talking about selling apps or subscription services directly to consumers, or offering mobile-based behavioral-health programs to large employers, or both?

SK: We’re taking on a part of healthcare where individuals have a powerful interest in positive change, so we think it’s completely reasonable to think there will be a consumer revenue stream. At the same time, the types of things we are doing will drive tremendous cost savings [for employers]. The focus is to build the best products and get people really living it. Who the economic buyer is, is less important at the moment. We are really focused on delivering the right experiences, and if we get that right the rest will follow pretty easily.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.