Fitness tracker backed by Providence gets kids moving

March 15, 2016

Computer games are one reason why American children are heavier and less physically active than in previous generations. So why not use the allure of virtual competition to get the kids moving again?

That is the theory behind a Seattle-based company called Sqord, and it motivated a $2.3 million seed round investment in late 2014 by Providence Ventures, part of Providence Health & Services of Renton, Wash. Sqord took a version of the wristband activity monitoring device and developed an easy system for scoring time and activity that lets kids record their efforts and compare them with schoolmates and friends. There are points, levels and "badges," just like in many video games. The name Sqord is a word play on scoring points.

Fifth graders at Billy Mitchell Elementary School in Lawndale, Calif., use their Sqord activity trackers to log their mile run.

Kids don't have to be stars on the playing fields to do well. They can earn points by walking their dogs, jumping rope, riding bicycles, even doing chores at home.

The relationship between sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity is clear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly one in five young children and teenagers is obese, more than double the rate in 1980. And one in three children is overweight.

People can point to plenty of reasons why — video games, TV and YouTube, hyper-organized competitive youth sports programs that don't have room for kids who aren't athletically inclined.

Representatives of Providence heard about the company through the Snohomish County Health Leadership Coalition, an organization that draws members from communities north of Seattle. Providence has a large hospital in Everett, Wash., the largest city in the county of more than 720,000 people; and, in 2013 it became involved in Sqord's first large-scale pilot program. The pilot included over 7,500 fifth graders in 15 school districts in Snohomish County.

Participating children carry a monitor about the size of a wristwatch, which collects data they transfer to computers through Sqord's software. They compete by sharing and comparing their point results with other children.

Coleman Greene, Sqord's co-founder and vice president of business development and strategic partnerships, said the physical activity of students in the pilot increased 12 percent in the first year and about 16 percent in the second year. Importantly, the activity levels of the children who were least active when they began using Sqord increased 55 percent from January through May of 2015, he said.

"Research indicates that when kids reach ages 10 and 11 (the typical age for fifth graders), their physical activity levels begin to decline drastically," Greene said. By encouraging active play, the pilot bucked that trend.

The Sqord activity tracking device can be worn on the wrist or ankle, or carried in a pocket. Kids use a web-based program to compare their activity levels with each other.

Claire Celeste Carnes, a partner in Providence Venture's $150 million capital fund for health technology, said, "If kids don't have a sport they are good at, they dial out. This is a way for them to engage in many different activities and encourage each other. Sqord has shown it can turn around the trend, and that's huge. We want to create healthy lifetime habits.

"We see a company working to solve a big community health problem. We are moving our venture funds into solutions outside the hospital and clinic. We believe Sqord can grow and deliver," Carnes said.

Providence Ventures is Sqord's largest venture capital investor, Greene said.

The Sqord activity tracker and software package cost $35 and come with a lifetime membership in Sqord's kid-safe website where kids can encourage each other to get moving. Greene said many participating school districts found grant partners to pay for the system for their students. He said Sqord offers "enterprise pricing" for bulk purchases by hospitals and health systems.

In the past year, Providence has rolled out new health and wellness programs using Sqord in its markets in Oregon, Washington, California and Alaska. Greene said Sqord shipped over 30,000 devices last fall for use in Providence-sponsored fitness initiatives.

"We are working to capture the old school spirit of play using new-school technology," Greene said of Sqord. "We want this to be much more than the latest gadget that kids pick up and put down. Our mission is to make play more fun for kids on their terms."

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.