Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2016 Best Industries report.
You have a Fitbit. Your neighbor is addicted to his Jawbone. Your girlfriend likes the Misfit Shine.
There's certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for technology aimed at improving health and fitness. Yet most companies have been slow to get on board--their efforts to help their employees in those areas, and to thereby keep health care costs down, have been sporadic, not fun, or both. Who wants to have a nurse call during dinner to ask about diet?
To entrepreneurs, that shortfall spells opportunity. "This explosion in consumer devices, apps, and services has transformed the way people think about their health," says Derek Newell, the co-founder and CEO of corporate wellness technology provider Jiff. Now startups are looking at ways to help companies deliver wellness programs through those consumer technologies, and at games and challenges that will help employees meet their wellness goals.
Jiff, with about $50 million in venture capital behind it, is one of the leaders in the field. But it's a crowded field, with companies such as Limeade, Welltok, Red Brick, EveryMove, Keas, and Virgin Health vying for a piece of a corporate wellness market that researcher IBISWorld expects to grow 8.4 percent annually to $12.1 billion in 2020. "There is such a frenzy at the moment," says Soeren Mattke, a senior scientist at the Rand Corporation.
That's also part of the reason that a few companies, including Jiff, are trying to separate from the pack by becoming platforms for wellness programs, providing a way to integrate offerings from multiple vendors, rather than focusing solely on serving up wellness services themselves. A company might partner with Fitbit, but what if lots of employees are using another device? How can the company manage those programs across multiple devices and apps, and get comparable data from each? The answer, says Newell, is what he refers to as an enterprise health benefits platform.
"At scale, no employer is going to contract with 20 direct-to-consumer companies to create disaggregated crazy experiences," says Newell. Instead, an employer can allow any sort of device to connect to Jiff's back-end system, and Jiff will create a social and gamified experience that works across the devices. With employees' permission, Jiff then pulls all the resulting data together. That lets employers see which devices are working and worth possibly paying for, and which aren't. It could be, for example, that everyone who's using MyFitnessPal is happy and getting fit, while everyone at Weight Watchers is struggling. "They can say, 'I don't want to subsidize that one anymore--it's low satisfaction and nobody's losing weight,'" says Newell.
Pivot, then pivot again.
Jiff was founded almost by accident. Newell, who had been running a patient-monitoring company, understood that mobile technology was going to change the way health care was delivered, but was having trouble raising money for a company that would capitalize on that. James Currier and Stan Chudnovsky had been successful game developers, and wanted to apply their expertise to health care, but they weren't getting funded either. Then, by chance, all three visited the same partner at Aberdare, a venture firm in San Francisco, in the same week. "He said, 'If the three of you team up, I'll give you money to just figure out an idea,'" says Newell.
They started with a tool to help doctors and patients communicate better. Next came Circle of Health, designed to allow patients, their caregivers, and their families to communicate and store medical information and records on a HIPAA-compliant platform.
Then, in June 2013, Jiff announced the development of a back-end platform for digital health applications, as well as a partnership with consulting firm Towers Watson. Unlike the previous products, that one stuck. Jiff got its first enterprise customer at the end of that year, and Newell says that 20 of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. now use the product. Clients include Qualcomm, RedBull, and Johnson & Johnson.
Surprisingly, employers don't seem to be using Jiff primarily to cut health care costs, which was the original promise of corporate wellness programs. "It's incredibly difficult to correlate wellness programs with dampened health care spending," says Newell. "There are so many different variables, especially at companies with high turnover."
Activision Blizzard, a Jiff customer, is using the platform, among other reasons, "to make this a higher-value place to work," says Milt Ezzard, Activision Blizzard's senior director of global benefits. He says that in the case of pregnancy, it's relatively easy to make a business case for wellness programs, since a premature birth can be so expensive and distressing to employees. Compared with the company's previous wellness program, Ezzard says, Jiff's pregnancy tracker has tripled the number of women who track their pregnancies. Still, he says, "do we really know if an employee delivered a healthy baby because she tracked her baby through the healthy pregnancy tool? We'll never know that."
Perhaps as a result, benefits other than reduced costs are getting a lot more attention. "It's not hard to see productivity gains and cultural gains and affinity gains" from wellness programs, says Newell. "It's not hard for HR people to measure those and see them and appreciate them." Jiff costs companies from one to five dollars per employee per month; Newell says that 80 percent of employees on the Jiff platform report that it has given them a stronger affinity for their employer. The way he looks at it, "Employers' interest in this is never going away."