From "From Dying Wishes To Support For Substance Users: How 5 Health Startups Tackle Tough Problems" by Rachel Zimmerman for WBUR.org
Seavey Bowdoin, a banker turned video game executive, was overweight and suffering from Type 2 diabetes when he walked in to the Joslin Diabetes Center for help. There, he met Dr. Osama Hamdy, medical director of the hospital's obesity program. As the two chatted about treatment options, they came up with what would become the startup Healthimation. They envisioned a super-engaging, game-like digital platform that was visually luscious and compelling; one that would take diabetes sufferers through a rigorous, evidence based program called, "Why WAIT."
Bowdoin went through the program himself and to date has lost about 60 pounds, putting his diabetes into remission, he says. But sticking with the regimen was tough, and often painful. "Nobody wants to change their lives. It's incredibly difficult," he said. Any site trying to tackle weight loss and obesity must also address emotional and behavioral challenges, he added: "Because it's such a miserable process, we had to make it fun.
As a former senior director for Warner Brothers who worked on games including "Lord of the Rings," "Batman" and violent "Mortal Combat" products, Bowdoin recruited friends from the gaming world and Hollywood to join the company.
One element that makes the product feel different than the multitude of weight loss apps available is Lena, the beguiling digital companion, who serves as the user's trusty guide. Carefully designed to be perky, just a little curvy, fun and relatable, Lena takes patients through a daily journey toward healthier living through humor, stories, cooking tips, positive reinforcement and various visual treats. She's like a Pixar-infused Lucille Ball. "We created a crazy app that doesn't look like health care," Bowdoin says, "so every day you want to go back."
Alaina Adams, a Ph.D. engineer, is Healthimation's CEO. She says the site essentially takes an established, hospital-based weight-loss program and "frees it from the walls of the hospital" so it can be used in a mobile environment by patients around the world. Ultimately, she says, it could draw insurers to cover the program and also bring down health care costs. The tough part, she says, is to stand out amid so many other weight loss programs and to actually change longstanding behavior. "We've looked at what works outside the health care industry. Why are people playing 'Candy Crush' and all these games?"
The first 12 weeks of the program are more intense, with a personalized nutrition and exercise plan. To deal with the potential emotional barriers, the site also connects users to a personal health coach and a support group (real, not virtual).
The product is now being used in a number of pilot locations, but Adams says there are several partnerships in the works, including some hospitals. Currently, Healthimation is launching in the U.S. and China, and looking to expand in the Middle East, with a regional office in the United Arab Emirates.