As the delta variant surges, a nonprofit app lets hospital patients call home for free on any device 

COVID Tech Connect, a nonprofit created during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, is launching a free app aimed at helping hospital patients call home. As the delta variant drives a new upward surge in critical COVID-19 cases, the new offering is, sadly, well timed.

COVID Tech Connect originated as a nonprofit organization in spring 2020, right before the initial summer surge in COVID-19 cases. At the time, the initiative was dedicated to collecting and donating hardware — tablets, phones, etc. — to hospitals where ICU beds were filling up, and COVID protocols prevented families from visiting sick relatives. So far, the organization has donated over 20,000 devices to 1,600 hospitals and care facilities, and 30,000 charging cords to an additional 248 hospitals.

The nonprofit is headed by a roster of proven entrepreneurs, including Anjali Kumar, Benish Shah, Christina Wallace, Katie Stanton, Kristina Libby and Sara Rodell. Since 2020, COVID Tech Connect has been run by Elien Becque, also an entrepreneur and the non-profit’s product director and program manager Kara Goldberg-King.

The device donation program was promoted to hospitals, but never actively promoted to care facilities. Still, the program generated organic interest among those facilities too. “We didn’t really put anything behind it [promoting to care facilities], but we were always being flooded with requests for devices,” Elien Becque, product director at COVID Tech Connect tells TechCrunch.

During its first year, COVID Tech Connect raised $4 million in funding from a variety of sources including, private donors, including Ellen DeGeneres and Shutterfly, and about $200,000 from a GoFundMe. Right now, COVID Tech Connect’s fiscal sponsor is The Giving Back Fund, another nonprofit that manages charitable donations from pro athletes, celebrities or high-net-worth individuals.

About one year after its original debut, COVID Tech Connect expanded into software with an app called TeleHome. TeleHome, which soft launched in May, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way to perform a video call within a hospital.

The TeleHome rollout comes during a confusing and critical time in the pandemic. While some hospital systems are now allowing visitors, others, like some Florida hospitals, are suspending or limiting visits in response to the delta variant.

Generally speaking, the CDC still recommends hospitals facilitate other ways for patients to visit with family — especially video or audio calls.

The TeleHome app was designed through a partnership with Caregility, a for-profit company that already provides telehealth services for hospitals. Caregility provided the back-end functionality for the app, while the front end was developed by COVID Tech Connect’s team.

“The idea for TeleHome was born out of conversations that the COVID Tech Connect team was having with hospitals about the specific use case of using smart devices to connect patients in hospital settings,” says Becque.

“The whole point of TeleHome really was to make our mission scalable beyond just the physical devices.”

The obvious critique of yet another video calling app is that it’s already a flooded space, though TeleHome does offer some services that are unique, and that make the app particularly useful for hospitals.

Hospitals have already used apps like FaceTime to connect patients with their families with success. A 2020 study on the effects of 350 FaceTime calls made in U.K. hospitals noted that the feedback was “very positive.” But the hospitals did run into IT issues — the use of FaceTime software, the study notes, limited calls to relatives who own Apple devices. (Apple’s new iOS 15 operating system will allow Android and Windows-based devices to run FaceTime, however, once it’s released widely in the fall).

By comparison TeleHome works on any device. A hospital can request a TeleHome login (provided again, for free). Once it’s installed using that one-time login, patients can use a hospital’s device to send a link via text to another person. Clicking that link will take participants to a Zoom-call like format in an internet browser — regardless of whether they have an iPhone, Android, computer or any other type of device.

“TeleHome was a natural extension for us beyond hardware and into software, especially for those hospitals that couldn’t accept the Android devices from us,” Kara Goldberg-King, program manager at COVID Tech Health tells TechCrunch.

TeleHome also comes with some privacy features that may be attractive to hospitals. To address patient privacy mandates by HIPAA requirements, Becque notes that “literally no data is collected.” There is evidence that a call link was generated but there are no recordings, logs or transcripts and the link itself expires after five minutes.

So far, the app has about 3,400 downloads.

The one thing TeleHome can’t get around is the need for a device in the first place, though COVID Tech Connect does donate devices as well, addressing that concern in part. But it does cut out technical details usually required to get a call up and running.

TechCrunch conducted about half of this interview with Becque and Goldberg-King over the TeleHome platform –– the platform works relatively seamlessly, provided you don’t have strict privacy settings limiting microphone or camera use. A test run of the video chat service worked like a charm on a computer, but I struggled to get the chat up and running while navigating the microphone or camera permissions menus on an iPhone.

There are some signs that some of the infrastructure of COVID Tech Connect may outlast the pandemic. For instance, COVID Tech Connect is in touch with Ameelio, an app that allows incarcerated people and their families to send letters and schedule video calls for free. But for now, COVID Tech Connect remains focused on the problem it set out to solve: closing the gulf between COVID-19 patients who enter the hospital and families on the outside.

As long as the nonprofit exists, the workforce plans to keep the service free.

“We’re really grateful to have been able to execute on the mission with TeleHome and make it scalable and we are not going to turn it into a company,” Becque adds. “It’s free now and it’s always going to be free.”