Minneapolis startup bets on virtual personal training


Perk HealthHealthcare is clearly a hot-button topic in our country today and sure to be among the most heavily debated throughout upcoming election cycle. Yet, for all the hand-wringing over ways to cover and cut costs associated with the industry, many people believe that the biggest key to alleviating our healthcare crisis is focusing more on preventative measures.

You can count local tech entrepreneurs Zach McGill and Doug DeBold among those people. The two recent college grads — McGill from the University of Minnesota and DeBold from Middlebury College in Vermont — have been formulating an online fitness service directed at small and medium sized companies that are self-insured.

Currently in alpha stage, Perk Health will offer a web-based application turned mobile virtual personal trainer named ‘Kevin’ that produces customized workout programs for employees with the goal of creating healthier habits and lowering healthcare costs through improved overall fitness.

“We needed to come up with a compelling product that really makes people want to exercise,” says McGill. In order to achieve this, they’re aiming for a level of personalization that cannot be matched by existing fitness apps.

“Everyone has a different personality when it comes to fitness,” adds DeBold. “Everyone has a different state that they’re at.”

To determine that state, users will complete an online survey that fleshes out their current habits, their goals, and their motivational factors. Kevin will then create a custom workout plan tailored to the person’s specific circumstances and track accountability; for example, a person who likes to mountain bike would be credited by their employer for the activity, essentially receiving a financial credit from the employer for each time they are active or achieve one of their goals.

Programs will differ based on whether the user has access to a gym, whether they’re currently exercising and whether their goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, run a marathon, etc. Initial tasks might be as simple as parking an extra two blocks from work and walking, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

To add an extra layer of function to the app, users will interact with Kevin via email and text messages, which is intended to simulate the support aspect of a traditional personal trainer. They refer to this as “the personification of technology.”

Perk Health is still in the very early stages of development. McGill and DeBold have spent the better part of the last year researching, speaking with fitness gurus and HR execs, to fine-tune their business plan. They intend to launch a very basic release by the end of this year to test the efficacy of the assumptions.

Despite its infancy, the idea is gaining plenty of traction and has become a Student Division finalist in the Minnesota Cup competition.

Once released, the cost of utilizing Perk Health will be significantly lower than offerings from larger corporate wellness programs, says McGill. “Physical fitness has a well-demonstrated ROI, so if this new app connects as intended it could easily be a winner in a field that can truly benefit from some innovative new approaches,” he says.