When can we all return to work and get our children back in school? At the moment, no one knows, even though resuming our former routines safely during the #COVID-19 pandemic is an urgent global priority.
Contributing to this critical work are two SC&I Information Technology and Informatics students and one ITI alumnus, who interned for a team of Rutgers faculty and technology professionals who have developed an innovative app called HLTH I.D. Last summer, the students helped steer the new app through the NSF-funded Rutgers I-Corps program, bringing it one step closer to market.
The students are Julianne Bulatao ’21 and Zach Clark ’21, who are majoring in ITI, and Kevin Samaniego-Calva ’20, who graduated last May with a degree in ITI. As current undergraduates, Bulatao and Clark are still working on the app. Having completed the Rutgers I-Corp program, the team of students and professionals are now planning to apply to the National I-Corps Program.
The app is poised to revolutionize the way people take COVID-19 tests, and also the way the collected data is recorded and stored. HLTH I.D is revolutionary for two reasons. The first is because of the data it is designed to collect. Users scan their faces with the app on their Android or iOS phone, and the app captures the user’s temperature, heart rate, heart rate variability, oxygen saturation levels in their blood, and stress levels. The app then provides the person with proof – a certification of sorts – showing they are safe to return to work or school.
SC&I Part-Time Lecturer Chris Pallé, who is the product leader of the HLTH I.D team, said, “While people can check their own subjective symptoms, such as a cough, HLTH I.D enables them to measure their own objective symptoms too. The combination of objective and subjective data will provide users and their communities with a much more thorough and accurate picture of their current health.
“In addition, HLTH I.D can also help people determine if they are ok to stay home and self-isolate or whether they should go to the hospital. For example, oxygen saturation is a key indicator of whether someone with COVID-19 condition is improving or deteriorating. During the fall and winter, people will need to know whether their symptoms are caused by the flu or COVID-19. Oxygen saturation is also a really key measure in that regard. People are not going to experience falling oxygen saturation levels if they have the flu, but they probably will if they have COVID-19.”
The second revolutionary feature of the HLTH I.D app is its underlying technology called metaMe. metaMe is an operating system designed to protect user’s privacy by ensuring they maintain sovereignty over their data. In other words, users keep the rights to the personal health data the app captures, because metaMe does not take users’ data and centralize it into a database. It decentralizes the data, and keeps it with the individuals. metaMe also does not identify the app’s users.
The HLTH I.D and metaMe leaders, in addition to Pallé, are Dele Atanda and Richard Marlink, MD who advises the team. Atanda, who leads metaMe as its CEO, is also the founder of the Internet. Foundation (The IF), which, according to Atanda, “is a trans-Atlantic NGO dedicated to promoting universal digital rights as a natural extension of human rights and the sustainable use of personal data in commerce.”
Marlink is the director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, the Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health, and professor, Department of Medicine - Division of Medical Oncology, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He served as the team’s Rutgers I-Corps industry mentor and helped the team prepare their application to Rutgers I-Corp. He then continued to work as part of the team during the 4-week intensive I-Corps process last July and August.
Atanda said, “metaMe’s roots stem from the international Internet Foundation, which seeks to develop policy and standards to ensure people using technologies of all kinds can protect their data. This will provide the public with privacy and agency and property rights around their information. metaMe is an operating system built around those principles. At a fundamental level, our technologies and principles are all about empowering people to realize the value of their data and use it to improve their lives.”
Palle, Atanda, and Marlink hired the three SC&I students as interns to work on both metaMe and HLTH I.D. The students helped conduct customer research by interviewing prospective app users, they analyzed the data, prepared reports and presentations, and worked on prototyping.
Pallé said, “The three SC&I interns have been really stellar. They have been extremely productive, on task, and great at coming up with ideas about how to manage the project. It’s also been a great learning experience for them. They’ve worked on customer discovery, which is a very valuable skill, and they are also working on our metaMe technology and getting exposure to these enterprise use cases.”
Bulatao, a senior majoring in Information Technology and minoring in Critical Intelligence Studies, and Zach Clark ’21, also a senior this year, are continuing to intern for the project this fall. Samaniego-Calva graduated from Rutgers in June 2020, and he worked as part of the team last summer.
Lori Dars, associate director of economic development and innovation, NJAES, and director of the Rutgers I-Corps site said, “Through the I-Corps process, groups such as HLTH I.D/metaMe start out with a blank business model canvas and they take guesses about who their potential customers are and what their value proposition is -- what do they have to offer to customers that is special or unique. Then they begin to talk to them. As they do their interviews and get feedback from the teaching team, they may realize that their customer segment is different than they anticipated or they may have to fine-tune their product. By the end of the four weeks, participants should have a pretty good idea of their customer segments and their value proposition.
“Our goal is to have all the teams (we had 12 this past summer) do a great job at customer discovery and be able to continue on the journey to commercialization or whatever path is appropriate for them. Some apply to National I-Corps, some go for patents, some are looking for a grant, others enter a business plan competition, while some pursue other funding opportunities. Everyone has a different pathway. Rutgers I-Corps is a short course compared to National I-Corps National, but applicants can only get into the national I-Corps program in two ways. One way is to have an active NSF grant for innovation (or one that has been active within the past five years). The other way is to go through a regional I-Corps program like ours.”
Pallé said, “As part of our journey with I-Corps, we started with a big, broad lofty list of all the potential users we thought the HLTH I.D app would have. But then through the discovery process, we were able to identify our segments more precisely. One of the things that was really profound for us was coming to understand, through the customer discovery process, the uncertainty around schools re-opening. We talked to parents of young school-aged children and this was on their minds. We now hope to zero in on this space. Through our interviews with parents, we also realized that our app is applicable to any situation involving a person with any infectious disease, so the app will continue to be needed after a COVID-19 vaccine is universally available.”
Bulatao, an intern whose title on the I-Corps team was co-entrepreneurial lead, said her role was serving as the facilitator. She said she assisted in creating emails to send out to potential clients for customer discovery interviews. She also created a timeline that showcased the tasks that needed to be done for the week and made sure everyone stayed on schedule and met each assignment’s deadline. She also took part in leading a portion of the interviews while the rest of the team took down notes and asked any additional questions that might have popped up.
“Along with leadership skills, Bulatao said, “I’ve strengthened my social skills as well. Before, I didn’t have the ability to talk to strangers very well. It was a skill I really needed to improve on in order for me to find a future career. Knowing how to approach and talk to people is just as important as having the experience and technical skills for a career. I feel that with the portion of interviews I led during my internship, as well as communicating with the other teams and the Teaching Team at Rutgers I-Corps, the internship helped me gain confidence in myself and improve skills I previously lacked. On top of that, I learned more about entrepreneurship. I haven’t really thought about this as a career path but seeing how metaMe is taking these steps working on HLTH I.D and being a part of this creation process, it has piqued my interest and might be something I consider in the future.”
Samaniego Calva graduated from SC&I in 2020 with a double major in ITI and psychology. He was also a summer intern and his title on the team was also co-entrepreneurial lead, He worked on creating a guide for their interviews and he also helped with scheduling the interviews. He said, “I also took part in meetings about the UI/UX design of the app and I got to chime in my own thoughts and opinions to the developers. I also got the opportunity to interview people as well, which ranged from Human Resource managers to small business owners within different industries.”
He said the I-Corps experience helped him improve his “oral communication through the interviews and taught me how to better work with a team, especially virtually since the whole program was moved online,” Samaniego Calva said. “I am also more familiar with different SaaS tools we used in the program such as InnovationWithin and Slack. I also learned the methodologies entrepreneurs should take when trying to create and sell a product, which will definitely help me later on when I start my own ventures.”
Marlink said, “This app has great potential for public health value if it is able to do all it promises to do. I look forward to following its journey and am pleased I was able to contribute to its development.”
In light of the urgent need for solutions like HLTH I.D, metaMe has accelerated the development of the app and recently begun implementing it in pilot initiatives with enterprises. They are also currently in discussions and RFI’s with various schools and colleges around the country. In addition, the team identified a clear direct-to-consumer need during the iCorps program and is launching a consumer-focused campaign on Indiegogo before year-end. If you’d like to learn more about HLTH I.D or gain early access visit www.hlthid.com