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HealthQ: groundbreaking African startup launches, attracts funding, blows minds

When we broke the story about HealthQ’s open source metabolic chamber — the first of its kind in the world — we came away solemnly impressed by what a group of entrepreneurs from Stellenbosch, South Africa, managed to pull off on a limited budget. After its official unveiling today, we are now privy to HealthQ’s impressive investor roster and how the metabolic chamber fits into HealthQ’s plans.

We knew that WooThemes co-founder Adii Pienaar was an investor, and that venture capital fund 4Di Capital was involved. Shortly after wealthy mining family, the Oppenheimers, invested in 4Di Capital’s venture fund for South African tech startups, now comes the news that HealthQ has secured a seed investment round through 4Di and a consortium of influential global families. Rachel Slack, a member of the Oppenheimer family and a member of the HealthQ board, teamed up with Laurie Olivier, founding investor of HealthQ and US-based Senior Partner of 4Di, to accommodate the deal.

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Olivier, who also serves as the Chairman of HealthQ, commented: “After more than 25 years of venture capital exposure throughout the world, I can clearly see the signs of a winning entrepreneurial team, and HealthQ has a lot of those characteristics. The combination of capable, youthful energy with experienced investors, in conjunction with the explosive growth at the cross-section of the global digital health and wellness sectors, comprises the right ingredients for great success.”

As we noted before, the HealthQ team is led by CEO, Dr Riaan Conradie, a University of Stellenbosch PhD with training in computational systems biology.

So how will HealthQ put the metabolic chamber to use? While the startup is still keeping its initial projects hush-hush due to confidentiality arrangements, it has revealed its first product — and it sounds rather epic. LifeQ is said to be a “pioneering digital consumer wellness product” that will be able to determine the amount of calories and type of food that is being metabolised by the user in real-time. The metabolic chamber will play an integral role in testing and industrialising LifeQ.

If you’re wondering about how it will look, Conradie tells us that the technology HealthQ is testing consists of a wearable electronic device that will give real time metabolic feedback, as well as a breathing apparatus that is based solely on electronics. The breathing apparatus is used to establish a baseline measurement. A second wearable electronic device then gives real time and continuous metabolic measurements of the wearer.

“Through constant electronic monitoring, both the energy uptake from food consumption and the user’s energy expenditure from vital functions and exercise will be tracked, without the need for manual data logging and intervention, or the use of inaccurate proxies such as accelerometers or GPS,” says HealthQ.

Conradie commented: “The LifeQ technology also aims to monitor common wellness goals, such as healthy eating habits and body fat loss, with a sensitivity unattainable by a regular bathroom scale. LifeQ will also provide the means to monitor sleep, stress, and advanced fitness parameters like EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption or commonly referred to as afterburn) with high accuracy and in real-time”. So basically, health buffs, rejoice.

The size of the seed investment round has not been disclosed nor do we know the identity of all the investors. But, we know that key investors alongside Slack and 4Di Capital, which also counts among its investors the Reinet fund chaired by Johann Rupert, include family interests of prominent US investor, Thomas S. Kaplan, and Kristina Plattner who holds a PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town.

Open source metabolic chamber

Some more details about the metabolic chamber emerged today. Stellenbosch in the Western Cape is now one of approximately 20 metabolic chambers globally — and claims to be the first of its kind to be based on open source technology. As we mentioned in our previous article, metabolic chambers enable the accurate tracking of human metabolism. They are especially helpful in the exercise and nutrition industries. These industries remain hot topics in part due to rising healthcare costs coupled with a global obsession with achieving optimal health.

Due to the complexity and high cost of construction, metabolic chambers are rare. HealthQ however, managed to build its chamber with the help of a number of local businesses willing to sponsor or provide at reduced cost to them, some of the most expensive parts in the system. Conceived in Conradie’s apartment, some parts were refurbished equipment sourced from online bidding sites.

In an attempt to repay the goodwill showed to them, HealthQ Technologies decided to freely provide all information necessary to build such a chamber, following an open source philosophy to enable the construction of similar chambers elsewhere on the continent and abroad.

Commenting on the open source technologies incorporated in the metabolic chamber Conradie said: “We have constructed the chamber using several ‘off-the-shelf’ and easy to find components, including an Arduino based micro-controller and accompanying source code, as well as the inexpensive Raspberry Pi microcomputer. Due to the use of these components and the gracious sponsorship of various local companies that share our goals to promote sport and scientific collaboration in South Africa, design and construction was achieved in record time – and this at less than one tenth of the typical cost of other metabolic chambers.”

During her keynote address at the opening of the metabolic chamber in Stellenbosch, the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, said: “HealthQ Technologies is a perfect example of a Silicon Cape startup, and an illustration of the entrepreneurial spirit and scientific abilities of the Western Cape”.

Image credit: Riaan Conradie

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