Can technology help improve a community’s health? Rick Weiss, CEO of Viocare Technologies, has landed a $500,000 grant to prove that it can. Not only that, he thinks restaurants and retailers will want to help.

Based on the success of "Lighten Up Princeton" campaigns conducted in 2002 and 2003, Weiss and Francesca Calderone-Steichen of the Princeton Regional Health Department invite business owners and healthcare providers to a kickoff meeting on Wednesday, September 28, at 1:30 p.m. in the community room of Princeton Township’s Town Hall, 400 Witherspoon Street. Wild Oats Market will provide refreshments. Call 609-497-4600, ext. 10, for information.

In 2002 the health department had teamed with Weiss’s Witherspoon Street-based firm, which worked on a pro bono basis, to launch "Lighten Up Princeton." Bristol-Myers Squibb provided funding for a follow-on program in 2003. Now the National Institutes of Health has given Weiss a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to show that his plan to reduce obesity and diabetes can work on a community level, that businesses will "buy in" to the financial model and that residents will sign up to participate.

"This is a chance for Princeton to take the lead in creating a program that can improve health in our society by using technology in an innovative way," says Weiss.

"We hope to create a model that be used in other towns," says Weiss. "If we are successful in this project, the follow-on is to take it to 20 more small- to mid-size communities and demonstrate that we can actually impact health."

Weiss cautions that the grant is only for a feasibility study to see if his model works. No attempt will be made this time around to see if health profiles actually improve. That’s because the grant is based on a well-known study that did reduce diabetes by 58 percent. "But it was extremely labor intensive, and once the funds were gone, the program dried up," says Weiss. "We have taken those concepts, automated them to reduce the labor, and created a means, through an awards program, for people to be given "health points."

Starting in 2007 Viocare will provide the community health website "vortal" (different from the usual term, portal). This website will help residents assess and monitor their lifestyles, and it will try to motivate change with referrals to Princeton-based organizations, events, and people. The opportunities for one-on-one interaction with physicians and dietitians will make it different from any other healthcare website.

After answering an online questionnaire that identifies what they need to do to improve their health, participants will get linked with Princeton-based organizations with online and offline tools. "If you need to see a dietitian, we will have a list of dietitians," says Weiss. "It will be a one-stop location for people to find other healthcare providers to fit their needs."

"Years ago the Internet generalized a lot of things," says Weiss. "We are trying to take that technology to another level in personalizing and promoting the interaction. The more you can personalize it the more successful you are with change."

Anyone can use the website, but up to 1,000 residents will be able to participate in the incentive program, using a smart card similar to those sold for Princeton Borough parking meters. They can accumulate points by, for instance, attending a meeting at the hospital or participating in a walk-in program they earn points that can be redeemed at local retailers. They could even get points by buying a health related item, such as running shoes, from a merchant enrolled in the program. Or buy a heart-healthy menu item from a participating restaurant. Points can then be "spent" on discounts at any participating store, such as an art gallery or bookstore.

At the end of six months, 50 people will be recruited to participate in focus groups to find if the program is acceptable to the end user.

Virtually any business can get involved, and they may be reimbursed for their costs. Plus, the grant pays for advertisements that will list the stores’ and merchants’ names.

Who can participate? "At least for this first go-round we are focusing on borough and township organizations," says Weiss. Whole Earth, Wild Oats, and T2 Restaurants have signed up, and he hopes to recruit more on September 28.

Some of the $500,000 will go for smart card hardware and for promotion, but most will be used to pay salaries for Weiss’s six-person firm and for out-of-town experts. Two Drexel researchers, dietitian Shortie McKinney and diabetes educator Karin Sargrade, will help run the program and conduct focus groups. Bob Jeffrey of the University of Minnesota is working on financial incentives for those who lose weight. David Katz of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center is devising an "impediment profiler," a questionnaire that will identify barriers to changing lifestyles.

The Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce will help test the concept that this kind of program idea could fund itself or even generate income for a chamber. The team also includes Eating Fresh Publications, which will provide online content, and a Pennsylvania-based firm, 73 Media, which designed the website. Amper Politzner & Mattia does the accounting. Weiss has just hired a project administrator and will be adding an additional programmer and a sales person.

"All my projects are really exciting but this moves us to a new plane, with wider implications," says Weiss, who has a stellar record of getting SBIR grants. This is number 11 for him. He is selling the products that resulted from earlier grants. ProNutra is a metabolic feeding study system that allows researchers to create custom menus and produce food to run clinical trials with a dietary component. It is being used in 50 research centers. For instance, one study is on the impact of soy on breast cancer. ProNutra helps track how much soy was consumed by an individual, and that result is compared with various medical markers.

Earlier this year he released an online dietary assessment tool, Vioscreen, a 30-minute self-administered food frequency questionnaire. Twenty clients are paying $5 to $10 per questionnaire, based on quantity purchase. The clients include university research organizations (Mayo Clinic, Ohio State, University of Colorado, and the UMDNJ’s employee wellness program), fitness centers, and dietitians. "One dietitian uses it once a quarter to measure the impact of her counseling on an individual and to demonstrate where they are succeeding and having problems."

"Ultimately I see all of our grants – and we have Phase I and II SBIR grants coming in over the next several years – will integrate single projects into a single system that we can place in a local community, an employer, a health insurer, a physician’s practice, or a hospital," says Weiss. "These are our ultimate customer markets."

Weiss has stuffed his current program with lots of incentives for everyone, including an encouragement for merchants to attend the meeting on September 28. "We are looking for a new name for the program," says Weiss. "If your name is chosen, you will win a $50 gift certificate for dinner at the Blue Point Grill. But this offer is only for those who come to the meeting."

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