The Reason Silicon Valley Hasn't Built a Good Health App

Homogenous teams of innovators make products for people just like them. And that's a problem.

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Many great innovators build what they know, for who they know. Aaron Sorkin caricatured this concept with his treatment of the Facebook story: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) built an online social network drawing from his own experiences and social network in real life. With consumer web products, given how young the industry is, domain expertise rarely refers to years of experience. An expert might be someone who has loved internet technology since childhood, tinkering with Javascript and LED displays after school. More often than not, a consumer web entrepreneur identifies pain points that he wants to solve as a user first. Technophiles, founders, and early adopters are all drawn from the same pool, often by design.

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Over the past couple of years, some of these entrepreneurs have begun building products focused on the quantified self. A thesis for the quantified self goes as follows: a modern young professional likely knows his Twitter follower number, Facebook friend count, as well as the market cap, IPO date, and vital data of a half-dozen companies in his industry. But if you ask for his resting heart rate, genetic disease markers, blood pressure, or body mass index, the chance that he knows more than 2 out of 4 of those is vanishingly small. Technology is the answer to this problem. Today, the pedometer, imagined 400 years ago by Leonardo Da Vinci and first developed in 1965, has evolved far beyond a "step counter" and into a suite of full-service health tracking devices.

In 2008, Gary Wolf co-founded a group called the Quantified Self, a "place for people interested in self-tracking to gather, share knowledge and experiences, and discover resources. The movement fashioned itself a descendant of the personal computer movement of the 1980s. Now the idea of the quantified self has spread beyond Wolf's circle. We see it in consumer products like the Jawbone UP, Fitbit, and Nike+ Fuelband, whose technology measures individuals daily movements and reports relevant health data. The iPhone and other mobile devices come stacked with Bluetooth, gyroscope, accelerometer, and GPS capabilities. They have all the hardware necessary to gather data, record your vitals and with accompanying software tracks (and hold you accountable for) your physical health. Indeed, distributed computing, the rise of mobile technology, and social networks that are reaching critical mass worldwide have laid fertile ground for a revolution in mobile health. But there is a problem.

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According to research at the John D. And Catherine MacArthur Foundation, "a large body of evidence indicates that socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of health. Better health is associated with having more income, more years of education, and a more prestigious job, as well as living in neighborhoods where a higher percentage of residents have higher incomes and more education." The South has the highest obesity prevalence, followed by the Midwest, Northeast, and the West. Among predominant American races, Blacks have the highest rate of obesity, followed by Mexican Americans, other Hispanics, and finally Whites. It seems as though, if innovators are looking to build healthcare solutions, the target demographic is not the technophiles early-adopters of The Social Network, who are predominantly middle- to upper-middle class whites and Asians living on the coasts.

 Conventional wisdom of social consumer internet products says, like Facebook, build for your community first, and the rest will follow. Indeed, the early-adopter elite often have more spending power as well, and so many consumer web products are aligned with the mentality of 'innovating for the elite'. But when it comes to healthcare innovation, this wisdom fails.

Presented by

Kanyi Maqubela serves as entrepreneur-in-residence at Collaborative Fund. He was previously a founding employee at Doostang and field director at One Block Off the Grid. He is from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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