Virtual pet game targets kids asthma management

By Jonah Comstock

WellapetsBoston-based LifeGuard Games is gearing up to launch a mobile game to teach children to manage their asthma. Wellapets, which is due to launch at the end of February, follows the mold of recently popular virtual pet games like Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters, but with an extra element of chronic disease management.

"I think doctors see there's value to be gained and not a lot of downside in terms of trying to offer their patients something that's educational that they can use when they're outside of the clinic just to sort of remind them what they're supposed to be doing," Cofounder and CEO Alexander Ryu told MobiHealthNews. "Doctors see kids coming into the office playing Mom's iPad or Mom's iPhone and they realize this could be an effective channel that they didn't have before."

In the Android and iOS game, kids in the game will adopt a virtual pet and take care of it, but in addition to feeding and playing with the virtual pet, they'll also administer the pet's inhaler, look out for and clean up potential asthma triggers, and play unlockable minigames. The game will cost about $4 and the company will primarily seek to distribute and market it via pediatricians and other business-to-consumer channels. Ryu says asthma will be the starting point for the company, but in the future they plan to develop games for more conditions like food allergies and diabetes.

"We started with asthma because it's definitely a huge problem," he said. "It's the most common chronic condition among kids, and it's also something that can be a huge burden if it's not well managed -- kids can end up in the emergency room, missing a lot of school. ... The problem is well-defined, it's widespread, and it's something we think we can actually move the needle on using games."

LifeGuard Games raised $7,500 in seed funding from Rough Draft Ventures, a VC group that funds student startups in Boston. The company has been working with local Boston Childrens' Hospitals to test the game on children with asthma and their parents. They plan to do more efficacy testing after the game has been out a year or so.

The company was cofounded by Ryu, a Harvard medical student, his sister Annie Ryu, who recently graduated Harvard undergrad, and Jason Cheng and Wenshiang Chung, who left InterSystems and BoardVantage respectively to start the company. Ryu said that after pivoting away from a global health project in India, the team was inspired by a talk by Jane McGonigal and the success of HopeLab. By adding health education features to a game genre that's already popular with kids (virtual pet games), they hoped they could create the blockbuster health gaming is still waiting for.

"[What makes us stand out is] the fact that we're using this sticky, existing virtual pet kind of game which is the focus for the kids," Ryu said. "It's not a gamified tool perspective, it really feels like a pure game. What comes with that is accessibility. There's no tools you have to add on to this for it to work. It's a mobile game, and fundamentally that is how we want it to look and feel."