UK Government Taps Startups To Help Get More Brits Fit And Healthy

The UK government is putting out a call for early stage startups with a focus on healthy eating, fitness and physical and mental well-being to enter a public health-focused competition that promises the winners support with marketing and business development, funded by Public Health England (PHE), a division of the UK Department of Health.

The Health X competition was launched this morning at an event in London. Submissions from startups are being accepted from today via the Health X website until August 1, with a finalists’ event taking place later that month and the winning products getting promotion on NHS Choices and other publicly funded health websites such as Change4Life from this December onwards.

Winning startups will get access to PHE’s marketing database of 3.2 million Brits who’ve expressed an interest in healthy living and have signed up to be “digitally contactable” on that topic, plus promotion on the NHS Choices website, which gets some 10 million unique visits per week.

There’s also mentoring support, and a small amount of seed capital for product and design support in the form of an up to £15,000 drawdown fund. Helping extant but early stage health-focused businesses scale up is the general idea.

The competition is also part of a wider drive by PHE to expand its digital strategy and engage with startups in the health space which it believes are going to be key to getting average Brits up and off the sofa, stubbing out their cigarettes and making healthier lifestyle choices.

It’s the kind of pro-active, preventative health action that traditional government-provided healthcare services haven’t exactly excelled at in years past — beyond offering encouragement via web portals such as Change4Life — being as they are engaged in the (expensive) firefight of dealing with extant health problems.

The hope is that startups are going to step in and help fashion pro-active, accessible healthy lifestyle tools that nudge people’s behaviour in the right direction. From ‘big society‘ to ‘big healthy startup idea’ if you will.

“We have some assets that we think, if we work together, can be of real use to you,” said Dan Metcalfe, deputy director of planning and product development at PHE, addressing an audience of digital business types (and a smattering of press) at this morning’s launch event.

“We know scale matters for startups and we have a range of assets. We have a single customer view database of 3.2 million citizens who have signed up with us, who are digitally contactable, and are interested in healthy living.

“We are also newly responsible for commissioning the Live Well section of NHS Choices… And we also run programs like Change4Life… We are doing things in this area, we have got things to offer but what we want is to work out how we can do that in a more mutually beneficial way.”

A key aspect of the challenge here is about closing the health inequality gap between different socioeconomic strata, which means fashioning digital tools that make positive healthcare choices attractive and accessible to the many not the few.

“Those that have more have a wider set of choices, those that have less have few choice but everyone’s got choices, and it’s about how you can help reach those people in relative, meaningful ways,” said PHE CEO Duncan Selbie.

With its target user in mind the Health X competition is focusing on products that are “simple and accessible to use”, rather than niche offerings for quantified health nerds.

Examples of the sorts of products PHE says it’s hoping to support include:

  • Food planners
  • Couch to 5k
  • Family activity promotions
  • SMS platforms as motivators of behavioral change
  • Zombie Run

PHE also brought in two health-focused startups to speak at today’s event to showcase the sorts of ideas that are catching its eye. The first, Sleepio, is a UK startup that’s built a fully automated personally tailored digital program for combating insomnia via cognitive behavioral therapy coaching (instead of sleeping pills) delivered by a virtual assistant called The Prof.

Also on show was Tictrac, an analytics platform startup that aggregates multiple health and lifestyle signals into a dashboard view with timeline visualization so the user can build individual context about factors in their lifestyle that might be impacting their health — whether that’s how much exercise they’re getting or the number of meetings they have in a week — so they can gain a “complete lifestyle picture”.

“We’ve doubled down as a company on data science because we’re getting such rich amounts of data from our partners,” said Tictrac’s founder and CEO Martin Blinder. Service partners include the likes of dedicated fitness-focused devices from companies like Jawbone and Fitbit, but also a far wider pool of digital services including Gmail, Google Calendar, LinkedIn and JustGiving.

“For us the real value in this market is what we call bio-algorithms — starting to pull in all that data that’s coming into the sensors,” he added. “The steps counter you get doesn’t really mean anything unless you have context around it so we’re pulling in all that data around steps, blood glucose, blood pressure, weight, all this information that together we can actually start to define specific types of outcomes, specific types of metrics that mean something to users.”