TechStars Boston Demo Day highlights health start-ups

TechStars’ Boston class came of age today at their demo day, capping off a frenzied three-month program that has produced a strong, more business-focused class that was especially memorable for its health component.

I really enjoyed all of the dozen start-ups in the 2011 class, and it’s hard to see a clunker in the bunch. But I was drawn to the health start-ups that applied technology in different ways to improve both physical and mental health. It’s an area that is growing, especially as companies look to leverage technology to get at some persistent problems. And it’s a worthwhile field, because it affects many people on a personal level.

Katie Rae, managing director of the Boston class, said the latest crop reflected some of the local strengths of the Boston area, which has produced a lot of health tech companies, as well as B2B startups. “Boston has an unbelievable health IT community and has deep roots in B2B,” she said. “I picked these companies partly because we can support them here with great mentors and great investors.”

Here’s a look at some of the companies that caught my eye:

Strohl Medical CEO and founder Heather Keith

Strohl Medical Technologies has come up with product that helps hospitals and emergency responders quickly detect if a patient is having a stroke. The portable device monitors a patient’s brain activity and their hearing, and has electrodes for a person’s wrists and knees. Within five to 10 minutes, the device can determine with more than 90-percent accuracy whether someone is having a stroke by looking at different signals including brain activity.

“We improve stroke triage; it’s exactly what the EKG did for heart attacks,” said Heather Keith, CEO and founder.

Keith said most stroke victims can be treated effectively with a drug called tPA, but it needs to be administered within four hours. By using Strohl Medical’s device, emergency room doctors or ambulance personnel can quickly understand how serious a patient’s condition is and get them on tPA in time to reverse the effects of most strokes. There are about 800,000 strokes a year, but only 32,000 patients were given tPA in time last year. Strohl Medical is licensing intellectual property from Tufts University and is selling the disposable kits for $250 each to hospitals. It should go on sale this October, pending FDA approval.

Hospitals all have EKG monitors and if the Stroh Medical can execute and provide the stroke equivalent, it’s something that should sell pretty easily.

Spill CEO and Founder Heidi Allstop

Spill is an anonymous peer-to-peer support system that helps students and potentially corporate workers get attention, encouragement and information on resources from other peers. The system, which was first launched by founder Heidi Allstop at the University of Wisconsin, allows users to log in to Spill with a school address and spill their guts about what they’re going through. Spill recruits a group of first responders at a particular school who reply to their fellow students within 24 hours and give them resources to turn to. Spill provides training material for the first responders and monitors their communications with users to ensure quality and also collect data on the interactions. It can set up a Spill service at a school for about $12,000 a year, then sell a school the data on what issues are cropping up among their student body for another $10,000 annually.

Allstop got the idea after struggling to settle into the University of Wisconsin and finding out it took two weeks to schedule an appointment with a counselor. She said 80 percent of student don’t avail themselves of counselors anyway, and one in four end up dropping out of school, which ends up costing colleges money. And it can save lives; Allstop said Spill has saved eight lives since it began.

The program is working at 10 colleges now, and Spill is looking to sign up 25 more with funding from investors. She said at least one Fortune 500 has contacted her about setting up a similar program for employees.

There are still some questions I have about liability and privacy, but I think a system like this makes sense. It leverages people going through similar situations to produce timely responses and delivers good resources to users. There would still be a need for counselors and other professionals, but just having someone there to respond to concerns and provide a stressed out, depressed or suicidal student or worker with immediate information can be a huge help. is tackling health by leveraging mobile phones and turning them into portable sensors. The company’s application, which will be distributed to users through health providers, pharmaceutical companies and others, gathers implicit data like location and the frequency of communications and combines that with explicit data gathered from users about their condition. Users can enter the data when they have a health episode or they can respond to notifications from or a health provider.

What does is take all the data it receives and analyzes it to understand if a person is suffering from a problem. It can also predict when someone might encounter a health issue. That can be an occasion to provide them or their friends and family with suggestions or recommendations. Health providers and pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars trying to understand how patients are doing and how they’re responding to medicine. But most patients aren’t good about filling in journals and surveys and accurately reporting their symptoms back to health providers.

“We’re at the cusp of transformation in health care,” said co-founder Anmol Madan. “We’re going from a model of going to a doctor and getting a prescription to a device and sensor that allows you to live healthy lives.”

We’ve talked about the growing importance of mobile devices in improving health, but it’s still an area that needs more innovation and investment and I’m glad to see moving in this direction.

Promoboxx caught my eye because it helps brands and local retailers come together to more effectively market to users. The idea is that national brands are trying to strike up relationships with consumers and so are their retail partners. What Promoboxx does is provide a platform for the two parties to come together to build unique campaigns around specific products and retail locations that can hit both of their audiences and fans.

Promoboxx’s platform allows a brand to start an online marketing campaign for Facebook, Twitter or through email or their website. They can then generate a local promotion that it can share with a particular retailer that is unique for that location. Then both of them can hit up their respective audiences and combine their efforts, rather than working separately.

Ben Carcio, Promoboxx’s CEO and founder, said by combining the power of a national brand the loyalty of local retail customers, it can increase e-mail leads and Facebook likes by 500 percent and can achieve a 24 percent conversion rate on sales. He said while brands are the initial target, local retailers can also use the platform for their outreach.

I like this because it just makes sense. Many brands are pushing social and online campaigns but they’re not effectively enlisting the help of their best advocates, their own retailers. And retailers can get better reach by working with their manufacturers.

Memrise is promising because it is taking the task of learning languages and making it fun and memorable. The start-up uses vivid encoding techniques like visual tools and mnemonic devices to help build up a user’s vocabulary.

For example, users can get cartoons and animations that help visualize Mandarin characters and attach them to accurate definitions. The company choreographs the way it serves up new words to ensure people keep learning and reviewing words that are more troublesome then it schedules reminders to encourage users to review words so they’re not forgotten. Memrise actually leverages some of the same social gaming tools in Farmville to get people to keep memorizing before their memories fade away like crops in a game.

Memrise’s Ed Cooke said by blending art and science, Memrise can help users memorize an average of 27 words an hour, well above the average rate of three an hour. Memrise began with Mandarin, but it’s expanding to dozen of languages with the help of users, who are contributing their own words and definitions and “mems”, the unique word/visual aid combinations. Cooke said Memrise is looking beyond language and believes this model can be used for all sorts of online learning.

I just like the idea of using clever techniques to help people learn languages. We don’t all learn the same way, but tapping visual and social tools seems like a smart way to expand language acquisition.

This was a strong class and saw a lot of great start-ups taking down real problems. Combined with the recent New York class, TechStars is showing that it’s still got plenty of mojo in accelerating start-ups.