GeckoCap: How industry networking can help a start-up

(seeking thomas/Flickr)

Yechiel Engelhard, MD, MBA, is founder and CEO of Gecko Health Innovations, a health care mobile technology company that recently unveiled the GeckoCap, a smart button for inhalers that allows families and doctors to monitor a child’s asthma.

Asthma affects nearly one in 10 children and is the cause of more than 700,000 emergency department visits and 14 million missed school days each year. A big concern is that children often don’t realize the importance of their asthma inhalers and don’t use them properly. That’s why we saw the need to make asthma easy to understand and inhalers fun for children to use.

The inhaler lets parents know when their child uses it or when medication is running low.

Our team came up with the concept of a “smart” cap that would fit onto an asthma inhaler and turn medication adherence into a game. The cap would send notifications to parents and give them a dashboard on their smartphone, showing them when inhalers are used improperly and helping them identify troublesome patterns. The cap would also generate reports for doctors, showing medication usage and helping them to educate parents about the correlation between medications, adherence and asthma triggers.

We moved forward to make this cap a reality, but quickly realized that like many start-ups we needed a strategic partner for the next development phase. That’s when we applied to Healthbox, a business accelerator program. We were accepted, went through the program and came away with three major learnings:

  • The value of focus groups
    We knew our end users before going into the program, but we had not yet fully tested their specific needs and how our product could best fulfill them. We worked with one of Healthbox’s mentor groups, Continuum, to execute focus groups that brought us into structured conversations with our end users: children and parents. The sessions gave us a deeper understanding of the challenges families face in managing asthma. For example, we realized that children often forget to take their medicine because it is “boring,” so we improved our game layer to make it more compelling—and our product more complete.
  • Seek health care mentors for navigational help
    The health care industry is complex and fragmented, and reaching out to the different players can be an endless effort. Conversations with industry experts and mentors, facilitated by Healthbox, helped us recognize the partnerships we would need to build a sustainable system. For example, it was crucial to receive input from payers, pharmaceutical companies and large health care providers like Boston Children’s Hospital. Naomi Fried, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s, helped us make additional connections to the hospital’s leaders and business decision-makers and get input from respiratory clinicians so we could better understand their needs. Naomi’s advice helped us to navigate between clinicians and the separate world of hospital administrators to design pilots to test GeckoCap.
  • Consider crowd funding
    Through the accelerator program, we were also able to connect with investment mentors that could look at GeckoCap and our business model and offer best practices for making it a more marketable and viable product. We successfully launched a fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo, a popular crowd-funding platform that gives consumers a chance to make donations and pre-order a product. In addition to funding, we received feedback that has provided more insights into our end users’ needs—and validation from prospective customers, which we’ve been able to share with our current and potential investors and business partners.

While the Healthbox program ended in November, ongoing connections allowed us to attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, leading us to be named one of the 10 quirkiest gadgets of CES by the Wall Street Journal and one of the most intriguing gadgets by the Huffington Post.

We expect to deliver GeckoCap to the market in 2013, progress that could not have been possible without the support and partnership of Healthbox and its network of mentors. GeckoCap serves as proof that small entrepreneurs and start-up companies can enter the complicated health care industry—given access to the right information and guidance.

Healthbox is now accepting applications for the 2013 Boston program. Deadline is Feb. 10, 2013. Go to to apply.