Technology is making it easier than ever for people to access personal health records, get in shape, and better track and manage their health data. Of course, technology only provides the assist, you’re the one who actually has to make the change happen. While the intersection of fitness and technology gets a lot of buzz in the media, being healthy really starts with diet. (You are what you eat, bub.)
But that one’s not as sexy, and it’s a more challenging play. Ideally everyone wants to eat (and be) healthier, but unfortunately the system and the food industry itself still make it difficult to choose the healthy option. Nutritional facts can be hard to decipher, and the labels we’ve now come to associate with the healthy choice, like “organic” or “natural,” are just another way of saying “too expensive,” or they don’t exist at all. As a result, people take the route with less friction, and, when compounded and taken to the extreme, one starts to understand why more than 1/3 of adults in the U.S. are considered obese.
Jason Langheier founded Zipongo in June 2011 to address this fundamental problem — to make it easier for families to make healthier choices by reducing the costs that so often get in the way. Through a web-based health community and iPhone app, Zipongo essentially combines the best of Mint.com and Groupon to create a service that gives users their own personalized wellness plans (and the ability to manage them), while offering discounts at the grocery stores they shop at the most.
To help it gear up for a full-scale launch later this summer (Zipongo is currently in private beta), the startup recently closed a round of seed capital ($1M+) from a flock of superangels and healthcare, tech and food marketing veterans. Those names include Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake via Founder Collective, Wireless Generation co-founder and CEO Larry Berger, Peter Dolan, the Board Director of The Partnership for a Healthy America (and former CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb) and Guitar Hero and Blue Goji co-founder Kai Huang — to name a few.
Langheier and team have also recruited a handful of industry veterans to advise Zipongo, including the Grocery Director at Adronico’s, the former president of Trader Joe’s, the co-founder of Revolution Foods, and the research director at the Duke Center for Healthy Living, etc.
But what is it about Zipongo that has attracted these players — and why should you care?
During his studies at Duke, Harvard, and UCSF and launching a pediatric weight management clinic at Boston Medical Center, the founder learned a few important lessons: If you truly want to influence healthy behavior, you have to get people involved in their own health. That essentially means creating a business plan for how to get healthy, laying out the process step-by-step with attainable milestones, rewards, incentives, and so on. But it can’t be a copy-and-paste job, it has to be personalized, and the process has to be fun — or else people won’t invest their time.
And secondly, you have to be involved at the transactional level. Personalized health plans can only go so far, the second a parent is in the supermarket at the point of purchase, the phone is ringing and their kid is tugging at their sleeve, if the products are hard to identify or too expensive, it’s game over.
Langheier said that from his experience both as the founder of two healthtech startups and from a clinical perspective, while health-tracking devices and fitness apps are great for a variety of geeky reasons, they tend to really only have significant impact for those who are already in shape — or close to it. Tracking health data to elucidate a risk, or adding gamification, social integration and other forms of motivation — that’s the early part. Personal health plans only work once someone is fired up about changing their behavior, and it’s only then that you can get people investing in the plan and really optimize health and wellness solutions.
So, Zipongo has created a marketplace that will offer users deals, recipes, and healthy meal plans that are personalized based on their health needs, lifestyles, and preferences. Through and opt-in, HIPAA-secure portal, users can connect their electronic medical records and health data, enabling the startup to personalize their health plan and offer relevant deals.
Through this personalized, proprietary health planning technology and grocery marketplace, users can then access and redeem discount through loyalty cards at local stores, and in turn help health players, retailers and care providers get involved in the delivery of a prescription for healthy living. In this regard, the plan is to create a system that is validated by doctors so that eventually, when users go see their doctor for a cholesterol check or whatever it may be, they’ll walk away with a prescription for mom’s vegetable medley based on a plan enabled by Zipongo.
To differentiate and make its model more difficult to replicate and enable scale — unlike standard deal sites — Zipongo is building a digital partner network so that users will eventually be able to swipe a loyalty card that is integrated with retailers to get those organic garbanzo beans and carrots at their local grocery store of choice. Their activity plans and grocery lists will be delivered via email, social network, or through the startup’s mobile app, which users can access on the go, swiping their loyalty card at checkout to pay less for the items on their list.
And that’s really the key: It’s no easy feat to integrate with and work with the existing good supply infrastructure, but that’s why the team has recruited mentors who have experience working for and with these big national chains. But many of these grocery outlets see that their customer base is being cannibalized by companies like Whole Foods, and have started to develop or carry healthy options as a result. They want to better help their customers find those products and get healthy, which increases loyalty. Zipongo wants to enable that and offer them a willing audience.
Of course, while it’s essential for Zipongo to get commitment from retailers, the company doesn’t just want to be a niche healthy deals or promotions company. So it’s taken on this new seed round to develop the technology that will allow users to sync their shopping history, health records, and medical history automatically, so that it can make smart, contextualized recommendations. Building this Mint.com health management system and sweetening the deal with rewards, badges, and loyalty programs integrated with national grocery chains could give the company the opportunity to actually effect real change. Only time will tell, but it’s a worthwhile goal to be sure.