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Better living through tactile data
If this column were a movie pitch, no one would buy it for a few years, not until people forgot about “Her,” the 2013 movie in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an artificial intelligence.
The story of David McDonald and Kor is very different. For one thing, he’s an entrepreneur, and he and his team are creating Kor. But McDonald talks about Kor almost as if the product is a living member of the team. Maybe even the leader. In McDonald’s telling, Kor is teaching and the team is listening. And he might be a bit smitten.
Kor Health is an interactive mobile health care app that begins with the user’s personal health information, then engages with the user to create a more complete profile. As the program gains more data through structured questioning, it offers both information and guidance to the user, acting as “a health coach, therapist and personal health assistant all rolled in one.”
“Kor listens to me,” McDonald says—reading from his investor pitch. “It understands and grows with me. The more I engage with Kor, the more intuitive and personalized the experience becomes.”
McDonald is a long-time Chattanooga entrepreneur. In 1998, he founded True North, a custom content publisher. Since leaving his position at True North two years ago, McDonald has operated Project Lift, a health care startup accelerator in Miami. He manages the health care vertical in this year’s Gig Tank, and he brought Kor with him. Kor will have its first public presentation at Gig Tank’s demo day July 29, and McDonald expects it to be in the market by the end of the year.
He was willing to bring Kor into Gig Tank this year because he operated Project Lift last year in parallel with Gig Tank 2013 and shared Chattanooga leaders’ frustration with the overly structured business model approach both programs then followed, along with most accelerator programs.
“The reality is, if you’re an entrepreneur you know that we create our realities and life is different every day,” he says. “So we changed our business model in Miami to be very iterative and very flexible and very free-form, more along the lines of innovation design and design thinking and business development, and less about structured guidance. Mike [Bradshaw, executive director of CoLab] has done the same thing here. I knew that we wouldn’t be hamstrung by any structure and would be able to do what we needed to do.”
McDonald’s Kor prototype is in user-acceptance testing, which means partners and pilot users are putting Kor through its paces.
“The business is growing right before our eyes,” McDonald says. “We see a tremendous amount of interest not just from traditional clients like hospitals but from some very large companies. We’re using it every day. We’re learning from Kor.”
What is Kor is teaching its creators? “It’s just not another data platform you can kick around,” he says. “It’s a real platform with real aspirations to be a real big influence in the healthcare space.”
Despite having that entrepreneurial power to create reality, McDonald warns against being overconfident. “If you don’t listen as an entrepreneur, if you’re bullheaded, you can make the wrong decisions, and then your reality becomes pretty shitty,” he says. “We’re listening to Kor. We’re listening to the market.”
In McDonald’s telling, the give-and-take of testing with potential users—he is working with Boeing and GE—sounds like a cross between auditioning an imperfect but resilient actor and running a “My Fair Lady”-style makeover.
“Somebody sat down with it and started messing with it, but that’s what it’s all about,” he says, “The very notion of Kor remained. And that’s what I mean—Kor taught us that. Kor said, ‘Look, I’m OK. Even though I’m a little ugly here, a little sluggish here, don’t worry about it. Fix that, because this human prefers it, and by and large this group of humans prefers this, but Kor’s still here.’”
He doesn’t want to think of Kor as either a business-to-business or business-to-consumer product. “This is a human tool—our customers are humans,” he says. “And wellness is not the opportunity in health care. Well-being is the opportunity. Kor facilitates a sense of well-being if you use it. It’s intuitive. It uses structured interactions with the individual to build a representation of very tactile data about the user.”
What is “tactile data,” I ask. “How do you touch?” McDonald responds. “Do you have to touch to touch? Or can you touch with words? Can you touch with activities? Can you touch with actions? Can you touch with thoughts? Can you touch with emotions? Can Kor touch somebody’s life in a way that improves it? And the answer to that is, emphatically, ‘yes.’ If you engage with Kor, you will be healthier. Your well-being will be at a higher level.”