Scotts Valley Startup dfusion: Doing Health Apps Differently
By Marcia Quackenbush
Special to Santa Cruz Tech Beat
January 28, 2016 — Santa Cruz, CA
On the surface, the work of Scotts Valley startup dfusion sounds standard enough. They’re developing health-focused technologies designed to shape positive health behaviors.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a company that’s taking the process several steps beyond what most behavioral health technology companies do.
“There’s been a tendency in the field up to now to come up with an idea that intuitively just makes sense. Then companies develop a product and bring it to market,” says Tamara Kuhn, Research Scientist and Director of Technology Innovation with the company. “You get products that say, ‘Use this app to track your running and you’ll get healthier,’ or ‘Wear this device to monitor your activity and sleep, and you’ll get healthier.’ The problem is, there isn’t generally a sound science base behind these claims.”
Kuhn and her associates at dfusion are changing that. They’re bringing the current behavioral health knowledge base—decades of rigorous research on the forces that shape healthy behaviors—right into their development process. “We’re integrating innovation and technology into the existing science of behavioral health,” she explains. “At this level, it’s not exactly intuitive work. It’s built directly from evidence and data, which we use as the basis for our designs.”
Moving Forward Through Partnerships
dfusion has established partnerships with a number of local and national entities, including Scotts Valley non-profit ETR, a health behavior research, training and education company. ETR will assist in carrying out sound, solid, scientific evaluations of many of dfusion’s behavioral health products.
“ETR is nationally recognized for the quality of its behavioral research in the area of sexual and reproductive health,” says Kuhn. “This is a fantastic partnership for the kinds of projects dfusion is pursuing.”
3 T Leads the Way
For example, dfusion is currently working on a mobile app called 3T—Tune In, Turn On, Turn Up. It’s designed to engage one of the hardest-to-reach groups at high risk for HIV—young Black men who have sex with men (YBMSM).
This is the first all-mobile HIV intervention designed specifically for YBMSM. According to Kuhn, the app focuses on Black 14-18 year olds, an extremely difficult group to reach in the HIV prevention world. “These young men don’t usually engage in health service programs or join HIV prevention efforts. But they are quite engaged in technology and mobile platforms. This, along with a science-based curriculum, is why we believe this app can build effective reach and have a genuine impact. And we’re excited to test our ideas and see if the evaluation evidence backs us up.”
The company is currently in Phase I development of this product with grant funding from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Innovation in Funding, Too
Started just over a year ago, dfusion has acquired over $1 million in funding. They work actively to leverage the federal SBIR (Small Business Innovation in Research) funding streams. This program, also called “America’s Seed Fund,” supports promising but high-risk innovation R&D that might not be easily funded through other means.
“This has been a very successful mechanism for us,” Kuhn says. “I’m sometimes surprised that more Santa Cruz County companies aren’t looking into SBIR opportunities. It seems to be a lot more popular over the hill. For us, it’s a great way to get capital for some of our most creative research-based ideas that doesn’t require repayment or equity.”
Kuhn suggests companies with an interest in research and development take a look at the SBIR website and consider competing for awards.