Orca Health has had quite a year. Launching their first app in in 2010, they now have a suite of ten apps with–we are promised–even more on the way. By combining stellar art work, three-dimensional interactive graphics and high-end native programming for the iPad, they have created and may well be en route to cornering the market for perioperative patient education apps.

Recent milestones for the company include winning the startup competition at Health 2.0 Europe, having two apps, EyeDecide & FootDecide, included in the iTunes App Store’s Apps for Healthcare Professionals. Until recently, Orca Health’s EyeDecide was ranked as the #1 downloaded free medical app on the App Store, and three other other apps (FaceDecide, BreastDecide & ENTDecide) are in the Top 25. To top it off, the iTunes App Store just included EyeDecide among the best the iPad / iPhone apps in its App Store Rewind 2011. It is interesting to think about the different places, and there are many, they could go from here.

Orca Health was among those selected for the StartUp Mobile Health Pavilion at the recent mHealth Summit (check out our fullcoverage), along with about two dozen other great mobile healthcare companies. There, I got to meet CEO & founder Matt Berry and publicist whiz Jake Lybbert (follow on Twitter). I talked with Matt about the (short) history and future of Orca Health, and his thoughts on the potential for tablets to improve the patient experience.

First, I have to ask – why the name Orca ?

Yeah, the name. Well, I’m from Seattle and I was looking for something very unique and known and kind of respected globally and I just came up with Orca. I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean and the killer whale and what it represents across the globe. I thought from a marketing and branding standpoint, it could be pervasive and ubiquitous, and that people would really remember it because of the immediate visual the get upon mention.

How did the company start ?

So Orca was actually kind of an accident. My father is a spine surgeon and we were discussing some of the macro issues both US based and globally within healthcare, from information asymmetry to lack of patient education to lack of patient surgical retention and I kind of interrupted him and said “You know Dad, I really think smart phones and tablets are going to be a big deal within healthcare. Why don’t we create for you this app and we’ll put some really cool 3D anatomy that the patient can be entertained with and then we’ll break down ten to fourteen different conditions with some great visuals, great content … and we’ll see what happens.” So I just basically built it for his practice.

So we built it and we called it Spine Decide and it was a much poorer version of what’s in there right now. He started giving it to his patients while they were waiting and he started seeing that the patients were much more satisfied and entertained with the information the app was giving them. We then put it in the App Store and it went number one on the medical App Store for like 9 straight weeks.

We started getting emails from physicians in South Africa, Japan, Illinois saying, “Hey this is really great, really helpful.” “Can you do a shoulder?” “Can you do a knee ?” So we just started replicating these apps across the spectrum, and that was it really.

In that story, where did it go from a cool idea to a company ?

I was in the process of moving back from Palo Alto. I did a start up out there, got it to TechCrunch50. It was doing well but I love skiing and wanted to come back to Utah. The way that it became a company was really within that story, when we started getting these emails and seeing the actual benefit it was bringing to physicians’ lives, to professionals’ lives, to medical students’ lives and ultimately to consumers, to the patients’ lives.

And that’s when I was like “Why don’t we build upon this ? This is obviously a need, why don’t we make a company?” So we approached some other doctors, and basically built a company off of it. And there were about eight founding physicians that are part of it, and so each app has a physician that attends to it and is responsible for the content–basically responsible for best practice and scientific content in the app. So that’s really how it started.

What is your process for building these apps ?

We actually have ten apps and going on twelve by Christmas. These last two will be dental which we can talk about later. Basically, we’re a design oriented company. We want to re-design healthcare. We start with the design and get one-on-one with the physician, talk about the content and the anatomy. We redo everything, everything is original content. We don’t copy and paste or purchase anything. I want it to be all original content.

What’s fascinating about that is the doctor will be like, “Yes, you know, it kind of looks like this in Netter’s book but it’s actually really like this.” And that’s just a fascinating process to go through. So we start with the design and then we turn it over to the 3D riggers and they build that process and then it’s adding content from there, with illustrations in between.
Right now we are in the process of redoing all the applications in a much more robust, light weight way. Most of it will be server based. Everything, even the conditions, will be 3D, where you’ll be able to explore inside the condition, move it around, rather than have it just be a static image. So that’s kind of the process, and we have a pretty good expertise right now.

With the right resources, we can knock them out pretty quickly. And they’re not light apps, they’re not a little simple game app. We’re big on execution and that’s how I drive my team, everyday it’s execution, execution. It’s the velocity of what we can do at a high rate.

I’m just impressed that how you can do the quality of the content but at this rate

Yeah I mean basically within fourteen months, we’ve done twelve pretty heavy apps and I think you’ll love what our dental apps will do. It’s all about execution. The bigger companies that have ten times the resources we do but are like big aircraft carriers, they can’t really turn. We pride ourselves on being light and doing a lot of work. We’re able to do it very, very quickly and we have the process down pat now.

How much of the secret sauce is 3D ?

Pretty much everything. What we’re really waiting for is the hardware to catch up, to do what we really want with the processor. We have a heart and a brain app that we’re trying to parallel with the launch of the iPad 3. It’s going to have totally different specs and it’ll really push the limits and really wow people.
I think our apps are great right now. I think they’re OK. I think they’re some of the better stuff that’s out there. I don’t think they’re phenomenal yet. I think we’re getting to some phenomenal stuff, with some gamification, some utility and some augmented reality. That’s really going to kind of set a new bar. But we’re really kind of waiting for hardware to catch up, which is happening at a pretty amazing rate.

You’re not trying to wedge a website into a tablet. You’re actually developing something that’s entirely native.

That’s right. Although we do have a web strategy, my philosophy from day one is that we start mobile and work backwards into the web. Everybody knows that the world’s going mobile and our computing devices will be strictly mobile, whether that’s a smart phone or a tablet. That’s where we’re going. So about a year ago I told everyone on my team, we’re going to start mobile, everything starts native and then we work back in to web apps, we work back in to dot-coms and that type of thing. I feel like you start mobile and work backwards and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for success.

I think that’s a good business strategy because your native apps are a big barrier to entry.

That’s right. It’s not an easy thing. 

Who funded you at the beginning ?

We raised from those original participating physicians, eight of them. So they’re content contributors and they’re all investors, capital contributors as well as sweat equity contributors.

How are you marketing this ? The average doctor is not paying attention to Health 2.0

Yeah, that’s exactly right. You know, we haven’t done any marketing to date. We have a presence on Twitter. That’s really about it. This is kind of the first wave of what we’re doing. I want to tell people what we’re about. I wanted to get products out there and then get reception. We’re really starting the phase of doing some traditional marketing as well a social stuff, but we really haven’t done much to promote them yet. We’re going to go pretty heavy on the conferences next year and really get in front of the people. 

It’s hard to sell to doctors, how do you tackle that ?

The adaption of the iPad and iPhone within healthcare has been absolutely stunning. But you’re right, most of them are early doctors, younger guys who are just coming out of medical school and residency, and that’s fine. We’re happy that the physicians are using them but we really want to create a platform that’s kind of a next wave of patient education. Kind of a 21st century place that you go to interact with your health, and so it’s more patient based than it is physician.

Yes, I noticed you’re marketed as a professional app but in reality it’s consumer content.

The websites that are out there are kind of the old model. It’s content that was written by an attorney and you go there and you read this encyclopedic version while three Viagra ads are blaring in your face. It’s absurd and it needs to stop. It was cool in 1996, now it’s not. The next phase is really interacting with your condition whatever that may be and visualizing it and be entertained by it.

There are two learning curves that are going on while we’re building. Number one is smart phone adoption. My grandmother downloads apps and tells me about this Flipboard app that she uses all the time. It’s amazing. The second learning curve is healthcare apps. We’re under the assumption, and it’s obviously proven, that a doctor will prescribe you an app just like he does drugs or a medical device or something else or exercises or whatever. He will say download X app to get this information or to monitor your heart, etc.

So there’s two learning curves there, so I wasn’t over anxious to shift everybody’s paradigm but now we’re coming out of those two curves and the adaption of smart phones has been stunning and the success of everybody’s work within iTunes App Store that’s medically directed has been pretty cool.

So where do you want to go next ?

You’ve seen some of the augmented reality in the vision test that you can do with an Eye Decide. Seeing what actual macular degeneration looks like through your camera lens, ditto with floaters. It’s pretty cool stuff and possibly could be saving a trip to the optometrist or ophthalmologist and saving yourself a lot of money in the process.

The next phase that we’ll be doing is some utility based stuff that will communicate with various devices. The third one that I’m really, really excited about is our aging heart app. That will use some games where you can put various inputs into your heart. Let’s say that you smoke three packs a day or are 40 pounds overweight. Let’s see what that does to your heart over the next 20 years. Now let’s do the reverse.

Let’s say that you lose 40 pounds and you stop smoking and you go vegan, now let’s see what happens. Let’s see how that’s going to save your knees. That’s really kind of the next phase of where we’re going as far as implementing games and various inputs to hopefully influence behavior and get people healthier. If they can see what it’s going to do instead of having someone tell them, that could have a very profound impact on people