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The Digital Skeptic: Health Tech Gets Ready to Be America's Biggest Loser

Jonathan Blum

02/14/13 - 08:00 AM EST

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It took sharing a fabulous and fatty meal with one of America's "Biggest Losers" for me to learn what it takes to make real changes in one's health.

"I'm a food addict, and I know it," Hannah Curlee told me over a way-marvelous, way-rich, Las Vegas steak frites dinner. "When I look at this plate, I know I can have only two bites of steak. And no fries -- too much salt. But the broccoli? That I can eat all day long."

The producers of NBC's absurdly popular weight-loss reality show -- The Biggest Loser -- recruited Curlee back in 2011. She along with her sister Olivia Ward, dropped a combined 249 pounds.

The team took down first and second place -- and a cool quarter-million first prize for Ward.

But it's Curlee's day job that makes her investor-worthy. She's a human resources professional for a health care company she asked me not to name. And she was refreshingly blunt about what works -- and what doesn't -- in keeping off the 129 pounds she lost.

"I really believe in the tools that I used," she said. Along with Jillian Michaels yelling at her eight hours a day, she wore an exercise management gizmo called BodyMedia -- a device that captures her body's metabolism and food consumption in minute detail.

"But at the end of the day it is the person inside that has to take responsibility for their own health," she said.

Her hard-won wisdom, it turns out, is lost on dozens of emerging ehealth-care technology companies, all angling to get paid to help people do what Curlee has done.

"We are seeing an explosion of consumer-aimed health care technologies and services," Michael Yang, managing partner at Philadelphia-based Comcast Ventures, told me. Yang should know. He has led a $12 million funding round for BodyMedia -- which, for the record, is a major sponsor of The Biggest Loser though Curlee says she does not get direct sponsorship from the firm.

Yang was clear that a dangerous bubble is lurking in the growing ehealth-care market.

"It cannot end well for every single one of these companies," he said.

Going on ehealth-care alert
It doesn't take a complex algo to see what worries Yang. There is a virtual hospital wing filled with ehealth companies looking to turn personal health data into a digital-age experience.

These mostly privately held firms seek to leverage the newly cheap GPS chips, accelerometers and other sensors to capture heart rates, exercise patterns, skin perspiration and other human data. They then present all these gobs of information to consumers, usually on the Web and mobile devices.

"We sell an integrated body-measuring system that sits on the wrist or shoulder starting at $119," says Ivo Stivoric, BodyMedia's CTO. "Users access their data and set goals from the website for $6.95 a month."

I found similar gadgets from makers such as Polar, Scosche, Mio Global and AFrame Digital. There is even an interesting, wearable body-data generating garment from Quebec-based Hexoskin -- $745 gets users a combined smart shirt and reader.

There is serious investor market cap chasing ehealth as well. Sport conglom Nike (NKE) rolled out the FuelBand that for $150 offers training advice as you run. And Canada's Lululemon Athletica (LULU) has made a workout-friendly sports bra with a heart-rate monitor built right in for just $64.

ehealth is ebarrier free
Most of these tools worked in my testing, generating fascinating results for managing weight or changing diet. They clearly have a rightful place in our health care debate. But the fact remains that, just like any other information-based sector, ehealth care can't keep the market organized.

A new generation of free or ultra-low-cost smartphone apps now compete with these pricey, purpose-built devices. This list, which is longer than I can count, includes the AliveCor app, which remotely measures ECG rhythms, Instant Heart Rate Pro and Web-based fitness communities such as Zamzee, SoFit Mobile and LifeKraze. And then there are the direct knockoffs. The Lark wristband imitates Nike's band, but at a fraction of the cost.

You know profits will be tight when a cool Kickstarter campaign is all that is needed to get going in ehealth, which is how the Mio Alpha product got launched.

The falling value of human information
The scary investor lab results go like this for ehealth. The Consumer Electronics Association is estimating that a full one-third of U.S. consumers plan on buying health and fitness gadgets this year. Those numbers make it very tough to focus on the reality here. Once our intimate corporal information goes through the digital information mill it comes out just as devalued as music, books and financial services. Stuff such as HIPAA regulations, secure networks and what employers say they will do with health care data will have no effect at all.

"The difference between the pretenders and the players will be the ones that can actually do something with the information," Yang said.

Meaning if investors don't eat right and generally be as careful as Hannah Curlee as to what they consume in ehealth, they -- not she -- will turn out to be America's "Biggest Loser."


Brokerage Partners