This afternoon on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage in New York, Kurbo Health debuted its mobile subscription service designed to teach children — and their families — how to eat healthy. The overall idea is to combat the growing issue of childhood obesity, the company says, noting that over 30 percent of U.S. kids today are overweight. That’s more than 25 million children between the ages of 10 and 18.
The issue was a personal one for Joanna Strober, a venture investor and board member at BlueNile and eToys, whose own son struggled with his weight. When she began researching the various ways she could best help him, she found lots of great options for adults and very few for kids. Mainly, she would come across weight-loss programs run by hospitals.
“But those programs were very expensive, and they took place during the day, so you’d have to leave work to get to them,” she explains. “And they were branded in a way that my son was not interested in going to them,” Strober adds. That is, they were dubbed things like “obesity centers,” for example – that’s something no kid wants to be associated with.
During her research, she came across the Stanford Pediatric Weight Loss Program, where her son found success. (He now sings Kurbo’s praises, says Strober.) But although the Stanford program is one of the best in the country in terms of results, it’s still very much “1970′s tech,” Strober notes: “Paper and pencil and in-person visits.”
However, while there, she met Kurbo Health’s co-founder Thea Runyan, who has a Masters in Public Health, and had worked at the center for 12 years. The two realized that there was an opportunity to take the behavior modification techniques and tools from Stanford’s program and combine them with the best mobile adult weight loss programs in order to create a mobile, scalable, and data-driven weight-loss program for kids.
The co-founders teamed up with Strober’s fellow Gloss.com investor and MIT-educated engineer, Mark Vershel, and then licensed Stanford’s program.
The result is Kurbo Health, a mobile service founded last June, which combines a food-tracking program, games, challenges, and coaching to encourage kids to make smarter eating choices. Similar to adult weight-loss apps, such as MyFitnessPal or Noom, for example, children keep a food diary in Kurbo Health.
However, while adult-aimed programs track a variety of metrics, like calories, sugar, carbs and fat, this kid-friendly app uses the established — and simpler — “Traffic Light” diet. That’s a 30-year old program that categorizes foods as “red,” “yellow” and “green,” and tells you how many of each you can have per day. In addition, once per week, Kurbo Health users connect with their weight-loss coach either via phone, Skype or text, who works on behavior modification techniques with them. The coaches also help the kids set goals and maintain them.
And here’s the interesting part about Kurbo Health: Although moms and/or dads are involved in the program — you know, so mom’s not chowing down on pizza while the kid nibbles on carrot sticks — they’re not actually able to see the child’s food diary. Explains Strober, the company listens to a kid advisory panel who gives them feedback about how the app should work, and they found that kids didn’t like when their parents scrutinized the details of what they were eating.
Instead, moms and/or dads can set a big reward simply for having the child participate in the program by tracking their food choices. Parents are only alerted as to whether the child is tracking, not what they ate. That reward could be something like letting the child keep the iPhone they’re using, or they could get a new video game, for example, and the app will remind the child from time to time what reward they’re working towards.
But, says Strober, that’s not these kids’ main motivation.
“A lot of our kids want to eat healthier, they just don’t know how to do it,” she says. “These kids are craving a tool that helps them without them feeling like they have to fight with their parents about it.”
The company recently launched into private beta with 50 kids, over half of whom are now losing weight. (There are 200 total users, as parents are also involved). Other interested parties can sign up here for when Kurbo Health launches more broadly.
Pricing for the program is on a subscription basis, with different tiers determined by the type of coaching: $85/month for live coaching; $35/month for text-based coaching; and it’s free for virtual coaching (more automated feedback based on what you’re eating).
The company stresses that while it’s tackling something that’s in the medical space with childhood obesity, they’re not issuing medical advice and they’re not doctors themselves, nor are the coaches doctors or nutritionists. The program simply teaches children and parents how to make healthier eating choices.
Kurbo Health is currently backed by $1.8 million in seed funding from Signia Ventures (Rick Thompson); Data Collective (Matt Ocko) and a dozen angel investors, including David Cowan (Bessemer); Greg Badros (ex-Facebook); Susan Wojcicki (Google) and Esther Dyson (EdVenture).
Judges for this session included: Ayah Bdeir (littleBits), Rachel Haot (New York State), Jacob Mullins (Exitround), Henrik Werdelin (BarkBox).
Q&A’s paraphrased for brevity.
JM: Social features in app?
A: Have features in app for kids over 13 and under 13. There’s no talking in the app – so no teasing.
RH: How does Stanford benefit from this?
A: They receive a 1.5% royalty
RH: Who are the coaches?
A: We’re looking for teachers, and other people trained in talking with children.
AB: What sort of challenges were discovered in beta?
A: Parents are the challenge. They want to get on the phone calls. We learned that parents need coaching too, so we’re adding that.
JM: How are you marketing this?
A: The front of website says eat healthier, but our ads have to say lose weight – that’s how they get clicks.
HW: Kids don’t want to do this:
A: This takes food police job away from parents. Parents can offer rewards in the app. (e.g. earn the iPad, etc.)
JK: What if you lie to app?
A: From coach perspective, we assume child is telling the truth…it’s about how the coach talks to the child. We’re also working with therapists to customize the messages.