Why Investors Are Banking on This App to Curb Childhood Obesity
Joanna Strober didn’t want to play food police with her son, who was having issues with his weight. Nor did she want to put him on a restrictive diet. She researched various tools, such as Weight Watchers and MyFitnessPal, but found they were geared toward adults.
So Strober, who spent two decades in venture capital and investment banking, decided to build a kid-friendly app and weight-management program to combat obesity and emphasize healthy lifestyle choices. She called her concept Kurbo Health.
“We worked hard to make Kurbo exciting, interesting and stigma-free,” says the Palo Alto, Calif.-based entrepreneur.
Since launching in 2013, the pediatric weight-management platform has raised $5.8 million in two rounds of funding from Signia Venture Partners, Data Collective and others. The app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.
Despite the much-reported epidemic of childhood obesity, Kurbo is a rare kid-focused alternative. Most weight-control programs for children are run at hospitals and require on-site visits, which can be an expensive and time-consuming option that many families can’t afford.
“Why can’t I do this on a remote basis?” wondered Strober, Kurbo’s CEO. The company secured a coveted spot in San Francisco digital healthcare accelerator Rock Health in January 2014, one of the few pediatric-focused startups to be accepted.
The Kurbo iOS and Android app uses behavior-modification science, based on research from Stanford’s Pediatric Weight Control Program, to help kids track and classify their food intake and exercise over a 12-week period. The app features game-style challenges that allow users to compete against one another to meet healthful goals. In addition to the app, which is free to download, members can opt to check in with a personal coach by text or email for $25 per month, or by phone or video for $75 per month.
Kurbo reports that more than 80 percent of users who followed the program lost weight and/or lowered their body mass index. So far, 1,000 young people have enrolled in coaching.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki was an early believer in Kurbo’s child-friendly program. “It’s extremely rare for me to invest in any startup,” says Wojcicki, who backed the July 2014 Series A round. “But with Kurbo, there was an opportunity to help solve one of the world’s biggest problems—childhood obesity—using mobile technology. As a mom with four kids, I’ve experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to get kids to understand and adopt healthy eating habits. Kurbo actually makes the process fun.”
Strober’s plan is to partner with healthcare providers to make the platform “affordable to everyone.” A pilot program through a Medicaid provider launches later this year. “We are hoping over time that the providers will pay for Kurbo for the families in their health plans,” she says.
But Kurbo isn’t intended to replace parental input, and Strober stresses the need for frank discussion with children about their health goals. “Parents say they’re going to hurt their child’s self-esteem if they talk about weight,” she says. “Anorexia is terrible, but talking to kids about their weight is not going to give them an eating disorder.”