Nine questions for Tonic’s Rajiv Mehta

By: Brian Dolan | May 12, 2011        

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Tonic appAt the Mobile Health 2011: What Really Works? event at Stanford University last week, Rajiv Mehta’s new startup, Tonic, won the Stanford Health Behavior Aware for Best Mobile Health Solution for Behavior Change in the “Already in Market” category. MobiHealthNews caught up with Tonic founder Rajiv Mehta before the event to discuss the launch of his new app. Previously Mehta founded Zume Life, a San Jose-based start-up that had developed its own dedicated device that allows those with chronic illnesses, their caretakers, or anyone with a complex regimen to keep track of and manage their own care. The roots of Zume Life are still present in Mehta’s latest venture, but the old startup is no more, Mehta said.

MobiHealthNews: Is Tonic a clean break from the Zume Life project?

Mehta: It is very much a clean break. Unfortunately, our timing with the fundraising was about as dismal as one can get but you can’t count on it. Zume Life is completely no more. Obviously the learning from that was valuable, especially for the work I have been doing for the past couple of years applying and refining some of those ideas and that’s what eventually led to Tonic. In this effort I’ve focused even more on the person not the patient. More on health than healthcare because health is so much more than healthcare.

Another distinction is this time you are not creating a new device — hardware?

That’s right. Fortunately, these devices have evolved tremendously over the past five years. It now makes complete sense to do it there. Although, it’s ironic, there are some thing we cannot do on today’s smartphones that we could do with our little homegrown Zuri device. That’s because of decisions at the OEM level and those will all be addressed over time, but these are so much more powerful that it doesn’t make sense to create our own devices at the moment.

What is Tonic?

It’s an iPhone app. Later on it will be for other platforms as well. At the basic level it helps people remember and keep track of anything in their health regimen. The idea is to make today easier and take these things off your mind by having this tool that helps you keep track of things. One key is that it is completely focused on empowering the user. It starts with a blank slate — it doesn’t prescribe or say what your health regimen should be. You set the agenda whether your health activities were suggested by a care provider, a friend, family or something you made up. By design Tonic is very flexible. Any medications, therapies, biometrics, food, exercises, symptoms, observations or whatever — you’ll be able to use Tonic for.

What makes Tonic different?

You have noted in your own articles that there are thousands and thousands of these or how there are only a few hundred focused on chronic disease. Even the best of those might only do a fantastic job on one specific symptom, but our health — real world health — is very, very messy and complex. It doesn’t lend itself to a single app. We talk about chronic illnesses as these silos, but they’re not. Having two or more chronic conditions is the norm not the exception. When it comes to people with chronic conditions you need to assume you don’t know what the person has because everybody has such a wide spectrum of issues. It’s messy because people have so many chronic illnesses. On top of our chronic conditions we all suffer from temporary afflictions too — whether it’s a cold, a headache or a sprained ankle. We also have various care providers: We may see a doctor for Western medicine, go to a yoga studio or get herbal supplement advice from a friend. For every single person this is complex. When you talk about all of those apps for chronic illnesses, it’s not like we need “an app” for this or “an app” for that. Every person is going to be different.

On the other hand it’s likely much easier for an app to find an audience if it’s a diabetes management app. It’s harder if the app is not so focused, right?

Yes, you’re absolutely right. From a business marketing perspective it’s a lot easier just to say you have a magic wand for diabetes or congestive heart failure. It may be good for business but it turns out it’s not actually useful for people. Many people have written about this. A couple of years ago there was a wonderful article that explained how common multiple chronic diseases are but how poorly studied they are. The article pointed out that you can’t glamorize “everything” so you have these campaigns for these very focused things. It’s easy to raise money for — it’s easy to market it, but that’s not real world health. At Tonic we have — by design — created an app for real world health.

So, do you think — in having created an app for real world health — the biggest challenge you face is successfully marketing it?

It could very well be. When we speak to people, we speak to their particular issues. Amongst our users I have had several beta users with cystic fibrosis. I’ve learned enough about the illness to speak about the issues that matter about them. I have another beta user who has Parkinson’s, going through chemo, and another focused on a fitness regimen. From a marketing perspective it’s important to understand their particular issues and speak to them. At the same time what’s good from an app perspective is that the functionality that they all need is all the same in terms of reminders and tracking.

Is your app for the person who is already motivated and interested in tracking these things? Will this just appeal to a niche, motivated group?

That’s a great question. The two part answer is: One, it absolutely is geared to people who want to do stuff. The goal of the app is to help people do what they already want to do but to help them do it better. As I said before, we have no inclination to tell people what to do. None at all. Our goal is not to motivate, persuade or any of those things. I would add to that — this is not a niche.

Well, right, if you group together all those motivated people across these various conditions it adds up to a large potential user base.

Yes, but even more generally, I don’t think we give people enough credit — this is more of a philosophical view — we don’t give people enough credit for what they are already doing or trying to do. My feeling and experience is that they are doing a lot. So, who is Tonic for? It’s for people who are dealing with chronic illnesses with complex regimens. If you have to take one or two pills a day and not much else, then you probably don’t need help doing it. If you have a lot to do than this is incredibly valuable.

Any surprises from Tonic so far?

Yes, one of the pleasant surprises is when people have tried our app even when they had simple regimens, they have noticed right away how much of a mental burden they had previously had to do all the remembering. When the app takes over they notice all the extra freedom they notice all the extra freedom they have gotten.