Startup HealthRally hopes social is the secret ingredient for wellness

You CAN get healthy!

HealthRally, a new San Francisco startup, is what you might get if you crossed Facebook with AMC’s Intervention reality show. The startup, which has raised $400,000 in seed money from noted angels and launches Thursday, allows you to reach personal wellness goals by getting friends and family to pledge cash to support you.

The idea is compelling as wellness apps and fitness tracking devices gain new converts at a rapid rate. But instead of a focus on sensor-driven metrics, HealthRally wants to optimize your connections. CEO Zack Lynch, a former neuroscientist, says that some people might be motivated by simply seeing how few calories they burn if they are trying to lose weight, but for many, getting them off the couch will require more than a device telling them they’ve barely walked 5,000 steps.

However, he might bust a move if his friends and family were contributing money for an iPad (s aapl) if he manage to meet a weight loss goal in a set time frame. HealthRally aims to make that possible. Lynch was inspired by research that showed people were more successful at quitting smoking if they had hundred of dollars in rewards at stake. From that point, the idea for HealthRally crystalized.

HealthRally: How it works

To use the service, someone with a wellness goal, let’s say to quit smoking, can go to the site and create a Rally for herself. She selects a goal, a timeframe and a reward and then invites friends and family to participate in helping her achieve her goal. Friends and family members can also set up a HealthRally for someone else, which inspires the Intervention comparison.

Can HealthRally (and your friends) help you stop smoking?

Once folks sign up to support a goal, they pledge money at set points throughout the challenge to help motivate the object of the Rally. They can also send encouraging messages and whatever else they’d like through a private social network affiliated with the challenge. At the end of the set time frame the person has either met the challenge or forfeits the pledged cash. That cash can be in the form of money, devices, vacations or a variety of other items. Lynch said one challenge involved a bridal party offering to buy the bride’s dress if she lost weight before her wedding.

HealthRally manages the invitation process and built the private social network for participants that sends notifications via email. It also includes an AI component that tracks participation in each Rally. For example if friends aren’t being supportive enough, the service reminds them to support their friend. Likewise if the person working toward the goal hasn’t updated their friends and family about their progress in a while, they get a nudge. For these services, HealthRally gets an undisclosed percentage of the cash put into the Rally as a motivation.

So far, an “extraordinarily high” number of the Rallies attempted during the program’s alpha phase were completed, according to Lynch. And there’s also a social verification process tied to completing a challenge. It’s not enough to say you’ve stopped smoking. Other folks participating in the Rally can reach out to make sure it’s true. People have contributed between $100 and $1,000 to various rallies and participants range from three people for a challenge to 1,000.

Peer pressure can be positive too

Peer pressure may get you to eat your greens.

The cool thing about the service is the recognition that social pressure is an integral aspect of wellness. We are getting closer to an age of the quantified self, where devices such as the Body Bugg or the Withings scale┬ácan help share and track personal metrics. But for many, social pressure is what will keep people turning to those nifty metrics to monitor their progress. As Lynch says, “Gamification, badges and levels are interesting, but the people in the middle of the bell curve are driven by the real reward.”

Plus, he has a plan to attract the die-hard wellness fiends using devices as well. He said the company is in talks with other device makers to tie their data into the program. This means someone wearing a pedometer could funnel data into the program to back up their claim that they walked 2 miles that day. Of course, communities already exist at fitness sites and many device-makers such as FitBit (see disclosure below) and Withings already allow folks to communicate their personal metrics to a social network. It’s a new space, but one with lots of competition and new products all the time.

HealthRally isn’t even the only company trying to get people to be healthy by using social pressure. Keas, a startup founded by Google alum Adam Bosworth, is building a motivation program aimed at helping HR departments improve employee health and morale. Bosworth described the startup at our Roadmap event last month, and the big difference between the two firms is Keas focuses on businesses while HealthRally is trying to appeal directly to consumers.

HealthRally, which was formed last year in San Francisco, raised its seed round from Esther Dyson, a prominent angel investor; Isy Goldwasser, a successful biotech entrepreneur; Richard Sass, a medical device entrepreneur; Ty Danco, a prolific angel investor; and Jeff Thiel, a former Microsoft (s msft) executive. Let’s see if consumers rally around the idea.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Image of food courtesy of Flickr user gabriel amadeus.