All posts in “Health”

Studio makes running more exciting with coaching, music and competition

Jason Baptiste wants you to run.

He said he’s seen the personal benefits of running since 2009, when he became unhappy with his weight and committed to run a “daily 5k,” something he’s held to ever since.

“Not only has running helped me be healthier, it’s helped my mind and spirit become stronger,” Baptiste wrote. “Running has become an outlet for me to be a better person.”

Despite his personal connection, Baptiste might not seem like the most obvious person to launch a new fitness startup — his last company, Onswipe, was a mobile publishing startup acquired by Beanstock Media in 2014.

But he told me, “Group fitness classes are media businesses” — they’re all about bringing an audience together to watch a central performance (with, okay, a lot of audience participation).

Similarly, Peloton has found success with live streamed spinning classes. In fact, you can think of Baptiste’s new startup Studio as an attempt to offer a Peloton-style service for running, without selling you the actual exercise equipment.

Studio has created iPhone and Apple Watch apps with a variety of running classes, combining coaching and music. Baptiste said this is designed less for experienced runners and more for newbies who want the health benefits but maybe see the running as painful and boring (which, to be fair, it totally can be). So Studio is all about “turning fitness into entertainment,” while also making sure you get a good workout.

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Studio-Teaser from Studio on Vimeo.

There’s a competitive aspect too, as Studio awards you “Fitcoin” for the time and distance of your runs. (You’ll need the Apple Watch app to track your runs and earn Fitcoin.) The virtual currency gets you a ranking on the Studio leaderboard and can also be used to earn prizes.

The app is designed specifically for treadmill runners, with treadmill-specific instructions on how to adjust your speed. Baptiste said he’s interested in supporting “running beyond the treadmill” in the future, but he also thinks he’s addressing a huge group already, as treadmills are the biggest seller among exercise equipment.

Studio is available for download now. There’s a subscription price of $15 a month or $99 a year.

Opternative sues Warby Parker for allegedly stealing its online eye exam

Eyewear e-commerce giant Warby Parker is accused of signing partnership contracts and NDAs with online eyeglass prescription test startup Opternative, then stealing the technology to launch its own competing “Prescription Check” feature. That’s according to a legal complaint filed by Opternative last month that was unsealed today as the lawsuit unfolds.

Opternative is seeking extensive financial compensation for damages due to breach of contract and theft of trade secrets, and reassignment of a Warby Parker eye test patent it says is derivative of its inventions.

“We have spent countless hours, days, weeks and years pouring our hearts and minds into building Opternative’s intellectual property and making ocular telehealth accessible to more people,” Opternative co-founder and Chief Science Officer Dr. Steven Lee told TechCrunch. “It is a huge disappointment that another company, which was in the startup category like us not too long ago, would take advantage of us for their own financial gain.” Opternative’s lawyer, Barry F. Irwin, of Irwin IP LLC, told TechCrunch, “We feel strongly that we will prevail in the litigation.”

Opternative’s eye test

Warby Parker’s eye test

Warby Parker provided this statement to TechCrunch when asked about the lawsuit:

The preposterous claims made by Opternative do not accurately reflect reality, and we’re prepared to take all necessary steps to defeat them. This is an unfortunate example of a company choosing to address competition with litigation instead of innovation. 

We started Warby Parker to radically transform the optical industry, and we’ve been interested in the emerging field of online vision tests for quite some time. Our goal is to offer the safest, most accurate, and most user-friendly telemedicine product, regardless of whether that product is built internally or externally. Over the years, we’ve looked at many potential solutions, including Opternative’s test. We gave Opternative the opportunity to demonstrate that its product could live up to the high standards of quality and service that customers have come to expect from Warby Parker. Ultimately, they failed to meet those standards, and we determined that the product and user experience were unfit for our customers. Opternative is now trying to correct those failures through meritless litigation. 

We recently launched a homegrown online vision test called Prescription Check, which leverages our patented technology to provide an intuitive user experience. We independently developed Prescription Check and did not have access to or use any of Opternative’s technical information that could have benefitted (sic) the development of our app. At Warby Parker, we’ve built our business and reputation on innovation, best-in class service, and fair competition—and we’re looking forward to exposing that Opternative’s claims are not supported by the facts.”

From partnership talks to competitors

Founded in 2013, Opternative’s technology allows people to take a 15-minute online refraction eye test to determine their eyeglass prescription using a phone and computer, rather than specialized equipment typically only found at an eye doctor’s office or an expensive smartphone dongle. [Disclosure: I was friends with Opternative’s now-CTO in college 10 years ago.]

Users take a specific number of steps back from their computer before it shows eyesight accuracy quizzes, such as determining what letters are on the screen or detecting colored symbols in a different colored circle. They receive instructions from their phone while tapping in the answers. After paying $50, the results are reviewed by an eye doctor and the patient receives a prescription for glasses or contacts within 24 hours, or a modification to an existing prescription.

Part of Opternative’s online vision test

Opternative had passed its clinical trials by 2015 and was expanding to more states. Soon it had raised a total of more than $9.5 million in rounds led by Tribeca Venture Partners and Jump Capital, and had a partnership with 1-800-Contacts. Some optometrist associations began fighting back against Opternative in order to protect their in-person test business, lobbying to have the startup’s service banned by the FDA. But now some optometrists have broken rank and begun working with Opternative to make their practices more efficient and manage patients remotely.

According to the lawsuit, Warby Parker reached out to Opternative back in 2013 about potential partnership opportunities. Warby Parker agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding the eyewear seller from using info about its technology to reverse-engineer the online eye exam or do anything besides partnering with the startup.

By 2015, discussions had advanced to include a potential acquisition of Opternative, and Warby Parker sought additional sensitive information about Opternative’s clinical trials and operating expenses. Opternative’s lawsuit contends that in May 2015 it sought and was given assurance that Warby Parker was not developing its own version of the technology, with Warby co-founder Dave Gilboa replying that he was “sensing a bunch of concern that I think is misplaced.”

Warby Parker allegedly requested its own test version of Opternative’s technology that it used in more than 60 tests, as well as raw outputs of the tests. However, in June 2015, the complaint says Warby Parker filed its own patent on a similar online eye exam using a phone and computer, with the main point of contact with Opternative listed as one of the inventors.

Opternative alleges that when Warby Parker questioned how it measured the distance from users to the computer screen in footsteps, Dr. Lee suggested a mobile phone camera could alternatively be used, and this ended up in the patent filing a month later. Warby Parker was later granted U.S. Patent No. 9,532,709 for an online eye exam.

On May 22, Opternative tells TechCrunch that Warby Parker called its founder to inform him that Warby was launching its own Prescription Check feature, which debuted the next day.

Warby Parker’s Prescription Check

As the lawsuit unfolds, the question will be whether Warby Parker is seen as having drawn from its NDA’d information to create its version of the eye exam. Warby Parker’s defense may hinge on the idea that it asks users to place a credit card in the corner of their computer screen and then measures it on the screen of their phone to determine their distance from the screen. Opternative’s measurement system that requests a user’s shoe size and asks them to take a certain number of heel-to-toe steps back may be less accurate.

Opternative’s argument is that Warby Parker’s test was still derivative of its exam, and that its co-founder Dr. Lee suggested the idea of using a phone’s camera for measuring the distance.

For now, Warby Parker has until November 6 to answer Opternative’s complaint or otherwise plead, such as filing a motion to dismiss. You can check out Opternative’s complaint in full below, and we’ll report back as the suit progresses.

This smart bandage releases meds on command for better healing

Taking care of a cut or scrape usually means swapping out the bandage a few times, and maybe putting a little healing cream or hydrogel on there. But what if the dressing could dispense that stuff on its own? That’s the idea behind a smart bandage now being tested by engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard and MIT.

Instead of plain sterile cotton or other fibers, this dressing is made of “composite fibers with a core electrical heater covered by a layer of hydrogel containing thermoresponsive drug carriers,” which really says it all.

It acts as a regular bandage, protecting the injury from exposure and so on, but attached to it is a stamp-sized microcontroller. When prompted by an app (or an onboard timer, or conceivably sensors woven into the bandage), the microcontroller sends a voltage through certain of the fibers, warming them and activating the medications lying dormant in the hydrogel.

Those medications could be anything from topical anesthetics to antibiotics to more sophisticated things like growth hormones that accelerate healing. More voltage, more medication — and each fiber can carry a different one.

“This is the first bandage that is capable of dose-dependent drug release,” said UN-L’s Ali Tamayol in a news release. “You can release multiple drugs with different release profiles. That’s a big advantage in comparison with other systems.”

In a paper published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, the team documents how in tests, critters (not humans — those tests come later) healed better when given the active bandage. They also made sure that the heat didn’t affect the healing process or the medication.

For ordinary scrapes a normal bandage (or plaster, for our friends across the pond) is probably still more than sufficient — this is for people whose healing processes are inhibited, or for whom frequent dressing changes are impossible or inconvenient.

Next up, in addition to further testing to satisfy the FDA, is investigating how to integrate sensors with the fibers, to measure blood glucose levels, pH and other indicators of how the healing process is going. Maybe soon your bandage will even include a progress bar.

3D printing brain scans helps doctors with a tricky diagnosis

When there’s a problem in the brain, it pays to be precise — every millimeter counts with something like a tumor or blocked artery. But it can be extremely difficult to understand the exact shape and size of these things, which makes them difficult to diagnose and treat, as well. But 3D printing a replica of the growth or damage may make doctors better able to do so.

That’s the suggestion made by Dr. Darin Okuda (above), who recently published some work showing the effectiveness of this printing method in diagnosing and understanding brain lesions found in multiple sclerosis patients.

Okuda’s team analyzed MRI scans of MS-affected brains and printed exact copies of the lesions, or damaged areas, detected in them. These were given to people who would normally have just used 2D images or a 3D reconstruction on a screen to diagnose or monitor this type of thing.

“What you see on plain 2-dimensional views does not give one a clear understanding as to the true shape of the lesion itself,” Okuda told me. “By studying lesions in 3D, we are looking at these findings in an entirely different way, assessing their shape and surface characteristics.”

They identified a number of features that distinguish MS lesions from other types of brain damage, such as asymmetry and complex surface structures. These weren’t always obvious from scans and the transition to 3D let the participants more easily perceive them.

“Prior to the release of our work, we were describing multiple sclerosis lesions incorrectly,” said Okuda. “Lesions from MS are still described as being ‘ovoid’ in shape and ‘well circumscribed’ in character. Based on our 3D work, we know that this is not the case. We were amazed at the complexity of MS lesions and would argue that conventional terms previously used in our field may not be accurate after a review in physical 3D form.”

A scan like this one only gives a limited idea of the shape of the lesion

Knowing this could be the difference between a correct and incorrect diagnosis, and 3D printing something is cheap and relatively quick. One could even print it out larger than life to get a better idea of its shape. The objects could also help patients understand the damage and how it can be treated, or see the results of that treatment outside of obscure visualizations and diagrams.

It may seem to you, as it did to me, that 3D visualization of 3D structures in the brain is a pretty obvious thing to do. But technology is in some ways very slow to arrive in medical fields, and 3D visualization in this type of clinical situation is no exception.

“It’s not as widespread as you think,” Okuda explained when I suggested that 3D visualization was prevalent in some ways already. “Other brain lesion imaging work that you have seen likely represents efforts related to CT scans or combination CT/MRI work for pre-surgical planning (with limited surface and shape resolution). Although it may seem intuitive, we do not use 3D imaging in the diagnosis and management of malignant brain tumors.”

Dr. Okuda showing off his lesion collection

Room to expand the technique, then, perhaps.

The next phase for Okuda and his team is, first, to make a VR platform for patients to use when 3D printing is not practical. And because this is an optimal use case for machine learning, development of deep learning systems is also underway. It may be that certain shapes or features could predict clinical outcomes or otherwise figure into the prognosis.

Okuda et al. published their work in a recent volume of the Journal of Neuroimaging.

Facebook helps blood donation go viral

Facebook doesn’t just want to make it easy to sign up to be a blood donor from the News Feed. It’s also creating a special kind of post for requesting blood donations of a certain type in a certain location, and then notifying nearby donors that qualify.

While many people are interested and willing to give blood, they might not know how to sign up, where to go, or have the social pressure to actually go do it. Putting this information on Facebook creates a highly visible reminder, and seeing the blood donor tag on people’s profiles could convince them they should sign up too. Plus, this good-hearted activity is likely to garner Likes in Facebook’s News Feed, which could help posts reach enough donors to find a local match.

It’s all part of an initiative in India pegged to the country’s National Blood Donation Day on October 1st. That’s when Facebook will start showing a message in the News Feed in India requesting people sign up, as well as offering a new section of the profile they can fill out. Users in India can find more information on donating blood here.

In the following weeks, Facebook will roll out the next phase in India, allowing people to make requests for donors to give blood for a specific person or organization like a blood bank or hospital. People will have the option to include the needed blood type, where it needs to be donated, their contact information, and a story about the person or group in need.

Then, people nearby who’ve indicated they’re willing to give blood will get a notification through Facebook requesting they step up. They’ll be able to vet the request and get in contact via phone call, WhatsApp, or Messenger.

One important thing is that people aren’t actually registering with a blood donation bank using this Facebook feature. That will happen when they go to donate.

Eventually if the program goes well in India, Facebook could roll it out to other places. Back in 2012 Facebook similarly did a drive to sign people up for organ donation. And its News Feed alerts to register to vote were shown to have helped get 2 million people registered.

This week Facebook has been dogged by claims of election interference and its potential to negatively influence people. But Facebook has a huge capacity to push people to do good. It’s just a matter of balancing philanthropy and humanitarian causes with avoiding Facebook becoming a big guilt trip.