June 2010

Different problems, same solution

Two Sustainable Vision grantees provide low-cost access to vital information

It’s hard to go wrong when giving people access to new information: people crave it, markets need it, and the benefits often extend far beyond the initial application. Case in point: two Sustainable Vision grantees recently took a look at widely divergent problems and arrived at the same basic solution: these people need more information.

The first problem? A lack of adequate diagnostic x-ray services in poor areas throughout the world. Two-thirds of the world’s population is without access to x-rays, making a process as simple as setting a broken bone much more difficult and more dangerous. And even for those who do have access, getting those x-rays developed and interpreted can be a long and complex process involving physically carting your film from place to place—all with, say, a broken arm at your side.

The solution? Form a number of strategic partnerships to provide a complete, low-cost, sustainable digital imaging solution. That’s precisely what Matt Glucksberg, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at Northwestern and his diverse team of students, faculty and partner organizations are doing. Calling themselves the World Health Imaging, Telemedicine & Informatics Alliance (WHITIA, worldhealthimaging.org), Glucksberg’s team has gone from a senior design project to a certified Illinois non-profit dedicated to bringing x-ray technology to the areas of the world that need it most.

A number of attempts have been made to do just that, of course, with mixed success. One low cost system, the World Health Imaging System–Radiology (WHIS-RAD), was developed by World Health Organization. NGOs have deployed about 1,500 of the machines throughout the world, but they are plagued by several maintenance and sustainability issues, particularly with recurring costs associated with film and chemicals. It isn’t unusual to see rural clinics in the developing world with defunct WHIS-RAD machines covered in cobwebs and locked in closets.

To create a more permanent solution, WHIA has partnered with Sedecal, a manufacturer of x-ray systems, to provide WHIS-RAD machines; with Carestream Health, a medical imaging company, to provide digital (filmless) medical imaging; and with Merge Healthcare, a medical imaging software company, for the software package. On top of these partnerships, WHIA has contacts with universities located in their first test sites (South Africa and Guatemala). Close relationships with Rotary International and other organizations have provided WHIA with a lineup of future candidate sites.

In short, WHIA is well set up to tackle what has been up to now an intractable problem.

“We started this project with the modest goal of replacing film with digital technology,” said Glucksberg, “but soon realized that all the advantages of filmless imaging that we enjoy in the developed world are even more important in resource-poor environments. There is so much that can be done when the image is data. Telemedicine, computer-aided diagnostics, and electronic medical records are all things that are needed to treat patients and track disease, whether we’re talking about medical practice in Chicago or Cape Town.”

For the second problem, we have to come all the way across the globe from Africa to the west coast of the US. That’s where Dara O’Rourke and his GoodGuide team (goodguide.com) are creating a website that rates products based on how “good” they are in terms of social and environmental practices—part of a new movement called “eco intelligence.” Once again, it’s all about information: What chemicals are in your baby shampoo? Was sweatshop labor used to make your t-shirt? What’s the total environmental impact of this gallon of milk?

Using an iPhone app, shoppers can enter a product’s name on their mobile device and the site, currently in beta, replies with detailed health, environmental, and social ratings. GoodGuide has already posted a multitude of searchable products, from food to personal hygiene to household cleaners to toys.

GoodGuide has taken off quickly, going from a student startup in 2006 to receiving $3.7 million in backing from cleantech investors in late 2008. They’ve garnered media attention from Time and Oprah Magazine, among others, and recently won a Crunchie award—Silicon Valley’s version of the Oscars—having been voted the startup “Most Likely to Make the World a Better Place.”

GoodGuide and WHIA are two ventures on the brink of success in achieving their goal: giving people access to valuable information. Their success does indeed promise to make the world a better place.

Credit, Debit, or Cell Phone? One-stop shopping with MobileLime

Imagine that you’re shopping at the supermarket. As you reach the end of the checkout line, the cashier offers you the familiar menu of choices with a new twist: “Credit, debit, or cell phone?”

Ajay Bam, founder of Boston-based mobile commerce processor Vayusa, Inc., and twice a recipient of NCIIA funding, wants to make this transaction a reality. Bam, who in 2000 along with two other MBAs in Babson College’s Entrepreneurship Intensive Track (EIT) program conceived the idea of paying with a cell phone, has raised $2.2 million from venture capitalists, led by communications technology specialists Seapoint Ventures and Ignition Partners. The company has signed up fifty area merchants since its launch and has a growing network of over 5,000 regular users.

The key to Vayusa’s success is that it has the only in-store mobile payments system that doesn’t require merchants to install new terminal equipment at the point of sale. When they’re ready to pay, consumers call Vayusa’s number on their cell phones and Vayusa identifies the user and authorizes the transaction, which is billed to a credit/debit card or prepaid account set up by the customer upon enrollment.

Vayusa has partnered with VeriFone®, the world’s largest point-of-sale payment company. The technology is designed to work with all 160 million cell phones currently in use in the US.

Beginning as a student with no knowledge of the payments industry and growing a venture capital-funded mobile commerce enterprise has been a long journey. Bam declares that the journey wouldn’t have been possible without the support he has received along the way: NCIIA funding, provided as the members were about to graduate and losing focus, reinvigorated the team. The NCIIA grant supported
the development of alpha and beta prototypes, the filing of a provisional patent, market research, and travel to present the plan to various investors.

NCIIA funding also provided a launching point for further financial support. When Babson professor Jeffrey Timmons put Bam in touch with Tom Huseby, the managing partner at Seapoint Ventures, a lasting and vital friendship formed. Huseby broke the rules at Seapoint and provided Bam with his first significant funding—a bridge note for 250k without a co-investor. From there, Vayusa took off, creating a sub-brand called MobileLime, completing a round of funding that brought in $2.2 million and launching in the last week of March 2003 with four retail merchants and a promotional campaign at Boston University.

What has Vayusa done with the money? According to Bam, the funding went toward expanding the merchant base and performing market research. “The challenge of the venture capitalists was always ‘Will people use this?’” says Bam. “Our first round of funding went toward proving that, yes, they will.”

Bam says that people don’t sign up for MobileLime simply because it’s a cool new way to pay—that might prove to be enough motivation for the small number of high-tech gearheads out there, but not for the majority of cell phone users. The primary attraction of MobileLime is the opportunity to save money.

Along with the ability to pay for products with your cell phone, MobileLime consolidates loyalty and rewards cards into one account, and customers receive discounts automatically when buying with their cell phones. “We understood from
the beginning that being a mobile payments company alone wasn’t going to cut it,” says Bam. “About five mobile payments companies before us disappeared because they focused on payments alone. People use MobileLime not because they can
pay in a fancy way but because they can save more.”

MobileLime goes beyond consolidating loyalty cards: customers also receive advertisements and electronic coupons on their cell phones. One of those coupons is the “Rainy Day Special.” Says Bam, “Let’s say it’s raining on a particular day; we send out a message that morning saying ‘If you shop using MobileLime
between one and fi ve pm, you’ll receive a 20% discount.’ Whereas traditional paper coupons usually get a response rate of .1%, we get 15-18% response on specials like Rainy Day.”

MobileLime has a lot going on these days: aside from completing another round of funding expected to bring in five to six million, they’re determining the best way to roll out the service nationally. “The challenge for us is how we are going to scale,” says Bam. “We’re focused in Boston now, but we’re looking to expand; we’ve been in discussions with some pretty big merchants and you can look for us in familiar stores soon.”

At the same time they’re trying to improve their business practices: getting better at training existing merchants, making improvements to the technology, and ramping up the marketing effort in their target markets of retail, quick-service stores and sit-down restaurants.

Mobile commerce—“m-commerce”—is projected to be a growth market, and MobileLime has aligned itself to be one of the companies riding the first wave.

In 2007 the company merged with Cuesol to become Modiv Media, developer of a next generation retail media delivery platform.