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Act 2: Creating apps that promote health and wellness

Concetta Russo developed an app to aid people

Concetta Russo developed an app to aid people with dyslexia. In Rapid Response Reading the "avatar makes it motivational," she said. "The kids win points and dress their avatar. And it's fun. They learn through fun." Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Concetta Russo, an educational consultant from Dix Hills who specializes in teaching reading to people with dyslexia, noticed children in her waiting room often played games on their cellphones.

Rather than rage against the screen, Russo saw opportunity in that cellphone connection. She decided to develop an app that she hoped would help people with dyslexia — and reading, in general.

Six years, thousands of dollars, and many twists and turns later, Russo said she recently finished testing her app, Rapid Response Reading, a digital reading game in which users complete word searches with an avatar. The app aims to improve reading for those with dyslexia; it can be used in conjunction with Recipe for Reading, a program for those with trouble reading.

“The avatar makes it motivational,” she said. “The kids win points and dress their avatar. And it’s fun. They learn through fun.”

Russo, who leads the International Dyslexia Association’s Long Island chapter, has adapted to a universe full of apps — for news, weather, train tickets, finding her car, even activating a cleaning robot.

“At my age, when you’re over 50 years old, you didn’t grow up with apps,” said Russo, director of special education from 1986 to 2004 for the Massapequa Public Schools. “My grandchildren use apps all the time. By 5 years old, all their games go through apps. It’s part of their life.”

These days, her own Rapid Response Reading app icon sits on her cellphone near those for PayPal, the MTA and others. It will be available to the public in the next few weeks, she said.

Apps for any age

A digital divide remains between younger and older Americans, but it’s narrowing. Forty-two percent of those 65 and older had smartphones in 2017, up from 18 percent in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Americans 65 and older with annual household income of $75,000 or more had smartphones. But older people are not just using apps, they’re developing them.

At Hofstra University’s recent Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge, there were a number of apps and products geared to and made by senior citizens, according to Stacey Sikes, the university’s executive dean of entrepreneurship and business development. “There’s been a range of ages of entrepreneurs who participate in the competition. Some are on their second or third career and are now working in the health care innovation space.”

Oftentimes, someone seeking to solve a problem becomes an “accidental app” designer.

Some have an academic background, as does Russo, who has been a full-time professor at The College of New Rochelle, St. John’s University in Queens and Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Lev Neymotin, 73, of Plainview, is the CEO of Sonad, which makes an app of the same name that lets users embed digital information in sound.

Neymotin, a nuclear engineer who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1988 to 2016, said he developed the app in 2016. “I realized that sound can be used for transmitting digital information.”

Memory apps

Kathleen Chabus, 43, who lives in Massapequa Park and is a longtime pharmaceutical sales representative, developed an app with appeal to older people, as well as younger parents. She created MemoryShare, an app that lets users create and share digital memory books and print traditional books with stories and images along with questionnaires designed to stimulate interaction and responses.  

“That’s the point of a MemoryShare book,” Chabus said, to help refresh and reinvigorate memories. 

Another app developer, Dr. David Langer, 56, chair of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, vice president of the Western Region of Northwell Health and a professor at Hofstra/Northwell, noticed patients had trouble remembering doctors’ instructions.

“I realized how difficult it was for patients to understand and remember all that was being communicated to them in their office visit,” said Langer, 56, who lives in Manhattan.

He began recording office visits and sending patients links, which led to Playback Health, an app that lets physicians record instructions to patients — and gives patients access to that and other information on their cellphones.

This lets health care providers “better explain and engage patients and their families in the patient’s care,” said Playback Health CEO Gregory Odland, 55, of upstate Mount Kisco.

“This greatly eases the burden placed on older patients to understand, remember and communicate to their children or other providers important care information about their diagnosis, care and treatment,” he continued.

A long and winding road

While apps may be easy to use, inventors find creating them involves a learning curve.

“I thought, ‘It’ll be easy,’ ‘It’ll be done in six months,’ ” said Russo, who began work on her app six years ago. “It took years. Even when I was on top of it.”

People with ideas for apps often go to someone with technical expertise — or research how to do it themselves. 

“You go to an app developer and say, ‘Here’s my concept. This is what I’d like to do,’” Russo said of her experience.

Chabus said she educated herself about apps before hiring experts. “I literally Googled how to build an app and taught myself,” she said. “I found a marketing partner, a developer, and literally taught myself from the ground up.”

She reached out to Chris Nehlen, creative director of Screaming Brands, a marketing company in Cold Spring Harbor. “I found her a developer, helped her write a business plan and helped create the app icon,” Nehlen said. “The two of us developed the screens together.”

Chabus said they expanded the idea, adding features that made it more useful. “We brainstormed together. We started with a simple idea and added features, like questionnaires,” she said. “We took an initial idea and grew it into so much more.”

MemoryShare evolved to include questions, or prompts, designed to get users to write thoughts about family and events.

“We have hundreds of questions,” Chabus said. “You can answer them yourself or interview yourself. You can laugh for years to come.”

Creating affordable apps

While having an idea may be exciting, implementing an app can be costly. “To put together an app costs a lot of money,” Russo said, adding that hers cost her thousands of dollars.

Mindful of the cost of developing an app, Nehlen hooked Chabus up with a company in India.

“I’ve been in the tech field for many years,” Nehlen said. “I found companies that I thought were best from a technology standpoint and cost-effective.”

Russo even looked for financing at one point, when she thought the app could be too expensive to finance on her own. “I said, ‘I have to find someone to invest in this,’” she said. “I looked for a while. That’s why it took this long to get it done.”

David Calone, CEO of Jove Equity Partners in Setauket, said it’s tough for app developers to attract investors. “One of the challenges of investing in apps is it’s difficult to get consumers to do something new.” Yet, said Calone, 46, who also lives in Setauket, “If you can get them to use it, they tend to be very sticky. If they download an app, they tend to use it.”

Instead of getting investors, Russo found someone to do the coding at a cost she could afford. “There were a lot of corrections,” Russo said. “There were glitches.”

Testing, testing

Testing apps takes time and money, of course. After her app was designed, Russo brought in a second coder to double-check the app and she began testing with students.  

Chabus hired testers through Upwork, a website that connects job posters with job seekers. “We tested for months until the app was ready to go,” she said.

Marketing an app, letting the world know it’s there, isn’t easy. Nehlen, now a minority shareholder in Chabus’ company, helped produce five “explainer videos” about the app for YouTube. They plan to use Facebook and Instagram as well as public relations and hope to get sponsorship for sections such as the questionnaires.

“The obstacles were technology, getting all the functionality to work properly,” Nehlen said. “As we went along, we came up with ideas that would make the app better.”

App developers have to decide whether and how much to charge or find another source of revenue. “People like having free apps. The ones that charge provide an upfront revenue, but a much smaller percentage of people are willing to pay for apps,” Calone said. “They have to be really useful for their lives and interests.”

Playback Health plans to roll out its app by the end of this year in Lenox Hill Hospital’s neurosurgery department. Eventually, it will roll out at other Lenox Hill departments and Northwell hospitals.

Russo hopes schools and school districts, therapists and teachers tap her app, which she plans to sell for 99 cents.

In addition to making apps, entrepreneurs devise creative ways to make money.

Chabus said MemoryShare is designed to generate revenue from users who order printed memory books, providing an income stream for the free app. “You can get a tangible product, a book full of memories,” she said.

Whether an app makes money, entrepreneurs get a kick out of seeing their apps in action.

“It felt like a huge accomplishment,” Chabus said of her app’s launch. “It was something we worked hard on. And to see it come to life and know you designed every aspect of it, and how much detail went into it, was amazing to see.”

Now online 

Beyond health and wellness, there are many apps aimed at the 50-plus demographic. Search “tech review” at newsday.com for app reviews.

Apps abound for seniors

Can’t remember where your car is? Trouble keeping track of pills or reading small print? There’s an app for that — and maybe a selection.

Even if apps won’t solve all things, many are available to help. Medisafe and Pillboxie help users take the right medications at the right time, as does a pill-dispensing device made by Geri Safe. Magnifying Glass With Light and EyeReader turn your phone into a magnifying glass to read menus, medications and other small type.

“Many older people have difficulty visualizing things, because of eye problems, so it’s hard to read smaller print. Many have arthritis or other problems with their hands,” said Dr. Robert Karpman, founder and CEO of Geri Safe, in upstate Ithaca, which makes an automated medication dispenser.

While the well-known Lumosity website uses “brain games” to improve memory, apps to address in-the-moment memory lapses proliferate. Park’n’Forget, Parkify, Parking Pin and Find My Car Smarter all help users locate their vehicles. And numerous apps, such as FallSafety, Fade and iFall, can help people who need assistance when they fall.

Stacey Sikes, Hofstra University’s executive dean of entrepreneurship and business development, said apps can appeal not just to older people, but to “everyone involved in care from caregivers to health care aides to doctors.”

Beyond health and wellness, there are many apps aimed at the 50-plus demographic. Search “tech review” at newsday.com for app reviews.

— Claude Solnik

Health scare to health app

For Cat Andersen, 38, who was born in Hempstead but now lives in Manhattan, fear was the mother of invention. Andersen grew up in Forest Hills and moved to Atlanta when she was 8, then went on to work as a network TV reporter. She said a breast cancer scare changed her life.

“I promised myself if I survived and got through it, I would do something, if I was more financially stable, to help people directly,” Andersen said.

Andersen became aware of the importance of nutrition after tests indicated she might have cancer, although she soon found out she did not. “I met more and more survivors and patients and watched the anxiety they had over putting anything into their body,” Andersen said. “They don’t want to put any toxins that could hurt their treatment.”

She is now developing Catscan, which would let people use their cellphone and image recognition technology to provide nutrition data and rankings on everything from apples to packaged foods.

Her product took the $25,000 first prize at Hofstra University’s Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge in October.

“I started dabbling in this idea as I was volunteering with patients. Then my father got cancer,” Andersen said. “I thought: ‘He’s going to need this app.’ ”

Although her father died in 2017, Andersen has continued developing the app, partnering with a Manhattan tech company, and is seeking investors to get it to market.

“We have a prototype that recognizes 50 products. We’re close to our beta version that should recognize 500,” she said. “Our goal is to get most of the things in the grocery store, which is about 500,000.”

— Claude Solnik

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