Wellsphere Founder is Back with Stealth-Mode HealthTap

Plenty of online wellness sites like publicly traded WebMD can answer general questions, including about the symptoms of diabetes. If, say, you need to find more specific information, like where to buy an insulin pump for your teenager in Palo Alto, you can try sites like Sequoia Capital-backed HealthCentral, which drill a bit deeper.

Yet both are still part of “Health 1.0 and 2.0,” according to Ron Gutman, co-founder and CEO of Wellsphere, a health-focused informational and community site that was acquired by HealthCentral in early 2009 for an undisclosed amount. (Gutman says the purchase price was “a good sale” for Gemini Israel Funds and individual investors, who capitalized the company with $3 million in 2007.)

Gutman says that it’s about time to usher in “Health 3.0,” and that he’s doing exactly that with three-month-old HealthTap, which aims to help users and their doctors make better decisions about users’ well-being by relying on their personal data.

How, exactly HealthTap will do that is a question that Gutman isn’t ready to share with the whole world yet. But his pitch was compelling enough to convince an enviable ensemble of angel investors — including tech guru Esther Dyson, Mint.com founder Aaron Patzer, Wikia CEO Gil Penchina, and Veritas founding CEO Mark Leslie — to invest more than $1 million in HealthTap, which Gutman expects will move from stealth mode and into private beta by year end.

“Right now, we’re doing some usability testing with a small group, then we’ll open it up a bit, iterate, then open it up some more,” says Gutman, a Stanford MBA and undergrad who first took an interest in personalized health while at the university. He notes that HealthTap was born partly out of Pew research that revealed that roughly 60 percent of people who search for health information online find it somewhat useful at best, and that 86 percent still seek out traditional sources of health information, presumably because what they find online isn’t necessarily relevant.

“Google is by far the largest health site,” says Gutman. “But the health information it organizes is focused on the symptom or the treatment — not the individuals. A 70-year-old who is male and has a headache can put the same query into a box as a younger person who is completely healthy and has a headache and get the same results. But at a doctor’s office, would they get the same diagnosis [or] the same treatment? Absolutely not.”

Even if they did, said Gutman, without a health education, most users don’t know how to differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t. Because people are prone to think the worst, “every headache becomes a brain tumor,” he says, half kiddingly.

In fact, users’ tendencies to gravitate to the extremes is what  Gutman hopes to reverse at HealthTap, by understanding the attributes around each particular user. “It’s about the data, the facts, the numbers and you,” he says.

Much of that data will apparently come from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is releasing a lot of health data to the public and making it available for free. “We’ve been working with them from the beginning to bring data to the developer community and to Silicon Valley, because a lot of it wasn’t developer friendly,” says Gutman.

Indeed, whatever comes of HealthTap, it already seems to be heightening awareness around health-oriented applications opportunities. In early September, the 11-person startup hosted a hackathon that was expected to attract 40 to 50 developers. Several hundred tried to register, but only 200 fit into HealthTap’s Palo Alto, Calif., office.