This Entrepreneur Built An Asthma Monitor To Save Lives—Just Not His Own

Like many entrepreneurs, Chris Stiffler had an idea for a world-changing product rooted in his own experience. In his case, the experience was a serious asthma attack. The product was Wheezy, a wearable device designed to help asthmatics monitor their breathing and other factors in order to help prevent attacks.

In January, Stiffler, a friend of mine who I knew through the Phoenix-area tech community, was hospitalized after an asthma attack so severe, it took him more than two hours to drive 30 miles to the hospital. During the drive, he found himself contemplating his own death with something approaching equanimity; when he arrived, he had to scribble “asthma attack” on a receipt with a broken pen because he couldn’t pull in enough air to speak.

When he died, entrepreneur Chris Stiffler was hard at work on a device that would help people like himself who suffered from asthma.

When he died, entrepreneur Chris Stiffler was hard at work on a device that would help people like himself who suffered from asthma.

“All I could think was, ‘Oh shit, this is really bad and I might never see my wife or kids again’,” he wrote in a blog post two months later.

While recuperating, Stiffler banged out code for an app that would let him log his breathing data. But it was a pain to enter the numbers manually, so he began sketching ideas for Wheezy, a hardware device that would automate the process and provide warnings of likely future attacks. He built a prototype and began using it himself.

Wheezy is close to a reality; Stiffler’s startup, Vicinity Health, had planned to build the first beta models shortly. Those plans, however, are now temporarily on hold following an unexpected tragedy—Stiffler’s sudden death last week after another severe asthma attack. Wheezy had predicted the event, although its warning wasn’t enough to save its creator.

The entrepreneur, 35, leaves behind his wife, two young children and a startup that’s still catching its own breath following the passing of its founder.

Waiting To Exhale

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the airways that can unexpectedly lead to wheezing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Long-term management is largely a matter of avoiding triggers such as cigarette smoke, using medications that relax the bronchial passages and tracking changes in breathing patterns that might signal whether asthma is worsening.

To track their lung function, asthmatics breathe into a tbe attached to a spirometer, a device that measures the volume of air moving in and out of the lungs. (Simpler versions of that device are called peak flow meters.) But tracking lung function regularly is cumbersome. Some mobile apps already let patients track their respiratory information, although they typically require individuals to enter their data manually.

Stiffler conceived of Wheezy as a system that would simplify that process and much more, to the point where it could track enough data to alert a patient’s doctors should an asthma attack appear imminent. The gadget itself is a small, colorful rectangle that plugs into a smartphone’s headphone jack. Patients breathe into the other end, and an associated app records the spirometric data.

The Wheezy app can also pull in relevant data from other sources—everything from local environmental conditions to sleep and exercise patterns gleaned from other fitness apps a patient might be using. In theory, the app would crunch the numbers, apply machine learning, and gauge the likelihood of an attack.

Hacking His Way To Health

Stiffler was hospitalized for a week after the attack in January, during which time he sketched mockups of the device that would later become Wheezy. He brought them to Gangplank, a local collaborative workspace in Chandler, Ariz., that hosts “hack nights” on Wednesday evenings, and teamed up with programmer and Gangplank regular Jessie Dommert to create the first prototype. I worked at Gangplank for a while, which is how I first got to know Stiffler.

See also: Arduino’s Massimo Banzi: How We Helped Make The Maker Movement

“He needed some help with the hardware of the device, so I started helping him learn Arduino,” Dommert said, referring to the modular do-it-yourself electronics kit. “What was great about Chris was, I could tell him what he needed to do and he’d attempt to do it. Even if he couldn’t do it, he tried.”

After a handful of hack nights, Stiffler had a rough working algorithm, an API (see our API explainer) to monitor weather and other data, and a working prototype of the device built with Arduino. It was enough to start up Vicinity Health, a company founded to help people dealing with a variety of respiratory problems.

Eventually, Stiffler brought on Scott Shrake, an engineering professor at Arizona State University, and Brian Straub, a local pharmacist. The company was accepted into the Iron Yard, an accelerator program in South Carolina that partners with the Mayo Clinic.

According to Shrake, Vicinity was also in the process of closing a funding round that would cover manufacture of the first 100 devices for beta testing. Vicinity planned to price the Wheezy device between $79 and $99, and to sell the accompanying app subscription service for $9 a month.

“His last message to me was, ‘Just think, three months from now we’ll be pitching at Health 2.0‘,” Shrake told me.

Those plans are now on hold. Stiffler’s death left a hole in the fledgling company—and while Shrake and Straub are committed to continuing his vision, the circumstances have forced them to rethink the future.

“He’s irreplaceable, but we’re going to identify what the next critical steps are,” Shrake said. “We want to put together a team around it that can do it justice. We’re going to deliver, but we have to strategize.”

A Heartbreaking Irony

 

Chris Stiffler is survived by his wife, Sandy Wu Stiffler, and two children.

Asthma affects an estimated 25 million in the U.S.; nine of those die of asthma attacks every day. Stiffler may have initially thought up Wheezy as a way of monitoring his own health, but a device like his could impact millions of people around the world.

Wearable health technologies are a nascent but growing market. Companies ranging from small fitness startups to tech giants like Apple and Google are trying to figure out how to effectively use resources like apps and smartwatches to manage our health, and ultimately make wearables as ubiquitous as smartphones.

The Chandler tech community is still reeling in the wake of Stiffler’s death, but the entrepreneur’s team and family agree that he would want the project to be completed. “It’s sad that the tool he was building was working, but not working enough to prevent his death,” Dommert said.

The team still has to figure out how to patch the hole Stiffler left behind. But once prototypes have been tested, Vicinity Health will launch a crowdfunding campaign to get Wheezy on the market, and eventually, bring the lighter-sized wearables to asthma sufferers everywhere.

“My husband will be very happy if Wheezy will help anyone, even just one person,” Sandy Wu Stiffler told me in an interview. “Eventually it will be coming out—those asthma patients won’t be afraid anymore.”

Friends of Chris Stiffler are raising funds to support his family. So far, 68 donors have raised $8,642.

Images provided by a friend of Chris Stiffler

LinkedIn’s Latest Lawsuit Is A Great Reminder Of How We Give Up Our Own Privac

On Friday, a judge ruled that LinkedIn must face a lawsuit brought by customers who claim LinkedIn accessed their external email accounts like Gmail and Yahoo in order to bombard their contacts with unwanted LinkedIn invites.

You’d need to read LinkedIn’s terms of service closely to learn that when you give LinkedIn access to your email accounts, the company pulls data from your emails to recruit new members. And you’d have to read through a lot of verbiage to discover that LinkedIn warns you that it will send out invites that look like they’re from you. Nowhere does it explicitly warn you that LinkedIn will follow up with repeated invites, making you look like a needy friend.

(Oh, you didn’t even bother to read the terms of service? Well, then those spammy invites your friends received in their email are all on you.)

This is the crux of a lawsuit brought by a group of users that raises questions about how much data companies can collect, and what they do with that information. U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh said Friday in her ruling that LinkedIn members who sued the company can pursue damages, as they try to expand their case to include other users, Bloomberg reported.

Koh rejected some wild conspiracy-theory claims LinkedIn members advanced that the company was somehow “hacking” into their email accounts, finding they’d consented to give it access.

“We will continue to contest the remaining claims, as we believe they have no merit,” a LinkedIn spokesperson told ReadWrite.

Giving Up Our Privacy, One Click At A Time
And yet there is merit to the idea that something is happening when we use online services like LinkedIn that puts our digital lives out of our control.

The suit hangs on the fact that LinkedIn users consent once to sending an email. The plaintiffs allege that LinkedIn then sends numerous follow-up invitations to people’s contacts, a practice Koh said in her ruling was grounds to move forward with the lawsuit.

Soon, a lawsuit like this one might be a dinosaur.

An increasing trend is for corporations to erode not just our privacy, but our right to protest these invasions, by taking advantage of terms of service—implied contracts with customers—to shield them from lawsuits like this.

Instead, they rewrite their terms to favor procedures like mandatory arbitration, a process which many legal advocates believe favor corporations. Dropbox made this change in February (though it allows users to opt out of the change).

Two Supreme Court decisions in 2011 and 2013 have made it possible for companies to quietly revise the terms of service users rarely read, in an effort to forestall any consequences for abusing user privacy, like those alleged in the LinkedIn suit.

As Lina Khan of the Washington Monthly notes:

The decisions culminate a thirty-year trend during which the judiciary, including initially some prominent liberal jurists, has moved to eliminate courts as a means for ordinary Americans to uphold their rights against companies. The result is a world where corporations can evade accountability and effectively skirt swaths of law, pushing their growing power over their consumers and employees past a tipping point.

This could theoretically put us in a world where Facebook could quietly change its terms of service to make the private information of its more than one billion users public—and there’d be almost nothing you could do about it, save quit in a huff.

See also: Why I Can’t Quit Facebook

It’s easy to lecture people about how important it is read the fine print you’re consenting to before sharing your private data. But we have lives to live, work to do, and families to see—all higher priorities than wading through Internet legalese.

And it’s not like we have any choice about these terms if we want to use a popular website. There’s no negotiating terms—only abject surrender.

I know I’m guilty of agreeing to terms of an app or website that I haven’t fully read.

But cases like LinkedIn’s contact-email lawsuit serve as a reminder for all: The scales are tipped against us when it comes to protecting our privacy. We constantly trade convenience for control over our own online lives. And soon, we may have no recourse.

Image by Isengardt

Up Close @ SMX Advanced: Local Super Therapy Session

Local SEO is a tough beast to tame, so it wasn’t surprising that the room was packed for the Let’s Talk Local Search: Super Therapy Session For Advanced Local Marketers session that kicked off SMX Advanced 2014. Moderator Matt McGee, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, decided to make the…

Samsung Is Getting Serious About Producing Its Own Virtual-Reality Videos

There are two Consumer Electronics Shows every year. One is all about glitz, with big gadget companies producing gonzo exhibits and lavish parties. The other is a low-key affair, where executives in back rooms discuss initiatives that will shape technology’s future.

The latter is where I met Matt Apfel, Samsung’s vice president of strategy and creative content. He’s in charge of making there’s a decent supply of appropriate shows for Samsung’s new VR headset, the Gear VR.

See also: Samsung Gives Gear VR Users 360-Degree Videos

At Samsung’s press conference Monday, the company announced partnerships with the NBA, Red Bull and Refinery29, among others—including David Alpert, executive producer of The Walking Dead, who signed on to make a series for Samsung’s virtual-reality video service, Milk VR.

Gear VR is very important to Samsung, which is why it wants to give its users quality videos to keep them happy—even if it means making them itself.

“Our” Walking Dead

Apfel knows users will get frustrated, even leave, “if there’s nothing else you can do with that device,” he said. “You’re not going to shop right now, you’re not going to do email—you’re going to watch video and play games.”

That’s why it lined up partners to come in and flesh out its VR line-up.

Those studios will deliver an array of choices to appeal to diverse tastes. And it’s campaigning for more. That’s what Apfel wants, though he seemed particularly enthused about Alpert’s creative contribution. He mentioned it more than once when I spoke to him.

Until that materializes, the best Milk VR title, “The Recruit,” still comes from Samsung itself.

Apfel explained how the three-minute scripted mystery/suspense video came about: “Metaverse pitched us an idea, and we really liked it. We said, let’s make this as our first original, as our ‘Walking Dead,’ our big signature show to launch with.”

Although the executive claims Samsung is “not in this to be a content company,” it’s the sort of thinking you’d expect from cable channels like AMC or HBO, or streaming providers like Netflix and Amazon, all of which offer original programming. (AMC is where The Walking Dead airs.)

Apfel stressed that his company hopes to appeal to filmmakers and other creative types who can use VR as a storytelling tool. Samsung doesn’t want to be the sole provider of quality videos for Milk VR, he said.

“We’ll always make content,” he said. “But hopefully we won’t be the only ones.”

Take Your Best Shot

Some Gear VR users complain about the spare selection and quality of videos in Milk VR, while others find some of the action nauseating. (Those Red Bull videos probably won’t help.)

Apfel said that it’s still early days and things will improve over time, promising Milk VR will get new offerings on a daily basis. If “The Recruit”— a slow-boil psychological mystery with no quick camera pans or jarring motions—is any indication, smoother camera moves and post-production work can help take the edge off.

“It’s not a function of the goggles; it’s a function of the way we’re making that content,“ Apfel said. “So that can be solved.”

Addressing issues with resolution quality, not content quality, will be trickier. Those might stem from over-compression of the videos or other technical issues unrelated to the filmmaking process. After all, 360-degree videos tend to involve high data transmission, and as a new service, those kinks may still need to be worked out.

As far as the the production and storyline are concerned, at least Apfel can remove some of those concerns.

He considers “The Recruit” to be “the best-shot video” in Milk VR. “It’s also really compelling because you don’t know where it’s going,” he said. “It sort of sets itself up for a series, which is hopefully what we’re going to start doing more of in 2015.”

Senior SEO Executive – Econsultancy (blog)

Senior SEO Executive
Econsultancy (blog)
The role requires a strong all-rounder who can deliver client strategies and execute campaigns across a technical and content driven landscape. The role also involves: • Developing, and implementing SEO strategies to improve performance in organic search

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Instagram The Fastest Growing Social Network, Facebook The Most Engaged, + More Stats by @mattsouthern

New data from Pew Research Internet Project finds that while Facebook is still the most popular social media site, Instagram is by far the fastest growing. When it comes to attracting new users, no one can touch Instagram right now. The amount U.S. adults using Instagram grew nine percent over 2014 — mean that 26 percent of all US adults are now on Instagram. By comparison, Pinterest’s user base grew by 7 percent, LinkedIn by 6 percent, and Twitter by 5 percent. What about Facebook? Well it actually didn’t grow at all last year in terms of user base, but it […]