One of DeskActives' two trainer avatars: Sam
One of DeskActives' two trainer avatars: Sam

OK, cubicle warriors, it’s time for true confessions. How often have you found yourselves locked in the same position at your keyboards for three or four hours or longer without taking a break? Be careful when you raise your hands; you might pull a muscle or throw out your back.

If your company doesn’t provide roaming personal trainers to lead your office in stretching exercises, DeskActive Inc. offers the next-best thing.

The Johnston-based company has developed an interactive software product that brings an animated personal trainer to workers’ computer screens for short stretching and exercise breaks throughout the workday. The program also sends users health and wellness reminders during the day tailored to each person’s interests, whether it’s eating more healthful foods, finding ways to reduce stress or improving posture.

“What’s great about DeskActive for users is that it pops up and reminds them right from their desktop,” said Amy Jennings, DeskActive’s director of client engagement. “So it really gets people engaged, and continues to engage them all day with reminder messages to get up and stretch throughout the day.”

This week, DeskActive will release version 2.0 of its software product and launch a revamped website, both key steps toward expanding its presence throughout the United States.

An animated product

Incorporated in the fall of 2009, DeskActive Inc. is the U.S. sister company of DeskActive Pty Ltd., which was launched in Australia in 2006. Josh Swinnerton, an Australian software development engineer who founded the company, had begun to develop back pain from sitting at his computer for extended periods. After searching for a software product that could help him at work, Swinnerton wasn’t impressed with the offerings on the market and decided that he could develop a program himself.

Finding animation talent in Australia wasn’t difficult, as Melbourne and Sydney are hubs for world-class animation studios. Swinnerton partnered with Ian Watson, an animator who had done work for Pixar Animation Studios and other major filmmakers, to develop DeskActive’s two trainer avatars: Sam and Sarah.

After developing the product and marketing it for a couple of years in Australia, Swinnerton wanted to enter the U.S. market. While attending a health-care trade show in Florida, he met Paul Greenwood, who at the time was executive vice president for Protocol Driven Healthcare Inc., a Des Moines-based health information software company.

During the next several months, Greenwood presented the product to some of his contacts in the wellness market, said Dana McNeill, DeskActive’s senior vice president for marketing and communications.

“The response was very good,” she said. “People reacted very positively to the product, that it was unique and had viability as a tangential or an enrichment to worksite wellness platforms.” At this point, McNeill said, she’s not aware of any other U.S. companies that have built a similar program as extensive as DeskActive’s.

Greenwood, now the CEO of DeskActive, assembled a management team that includes McNeill and Jennings, as well as Dr. Dale Andringa, DeskActive’s medical director, and Cathy Noecker Crowley, business development consultant. All four had worked for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield before joining DeskActive.

The start-up company has attracted seed money, largely from Iowa investors, Andringa said. DeskActive is now in discussions with several health-related companies that could serve as marketing partners for DeskActive to distribute its product. “There is the potential that some of those channel partners may invest as well,” he said. “Our conversations to date have been very positive.”

Toe in the water

In the first half of 2010, DeskActive was “getting our toe in the water” by placing the software with several Iowa employers free of charge so they could test and critique the product, McNeill said. After making some initial modifications in the software for the U.S. market, the company has sold annual subscriptions for about 500 users with approximately 25 companies.

“So we’re getting some traction,” she said. The initial customers are primarily Iowa-based companies, though other clients are scattered across the country as well.

For most employers installing a non-custom platform, the program will cost $50 per user per year, Crowley said. “So we see it as an affordable, turnkey solution set that could complement an existing program, or for a smaller employer, it could be the start-up of a program they’ve wanted to build for their employees.”

KHI Financial Solutions, an insurance brokerage with offices in Fort Dodge, Webster City and West Des Moines, began using DeskActive last fall.

“It’s fantastic,” said Lynn Schreder, KHI’s co-owner. “The biggest thing for me is that it comes to you; you don’t have to go out to a website somewhere. And you can’t hardly help but smile when you see these characters come up and remind you to do these exercises.”

In addition to her company’s 16 employees, KHI has also made the program available to its agents, who have begun offering it to their clients, Schreder said.

The program’s annual user fee has been affordable for her small business, she said. “For $800 a year, I can have a beginning of a wellness program, especially for people who are sitting at their desks all day.”

DeskActive now has 10 full-time and four part-time or contract employees in Johnston, along with seven people at its Australian sister company. Depending on the timing of some new product launches, the U.S. company could possibly add another five employees this year, McNeill said.

Redesigning the product’s extensive medical advice library has been a key element in readying DeskActive for the U.S. market, Andringa said.

“I think that’s something that we’ve been able to add to enrich the product,” he said. “We all have an insurance background and have worked with employers and know what kind of content they expect.”

The medical advice content is “served up in short bites” to avoid overwhelming users, Crowley said. “Someone can read the content in about a minute and get actionable information from it.” Additionally, users can choose the topics they’re most interested in seeing information about, she said.

Breath of fresh air

The software program is easy for companies to implement, Jennings said, “so for small employers that don’t have the resources to staff a wellness program, it’s a great introduction to creating a culture of health.”

McNeill said enhancements to the website will make it easier for both individuals and small businesses to purchase the software online as well. However, “we recognize a lot of employers will want to meet with us to see how it will fit into their overall strategy,” she said.

As for how much workers are actually using the product, most employers are seeing participation rates of at least 40 percent, McNeill said. “It very much depends on the commitment of the employer, and placing the product in the appropriate setting,” she said.

“We think it’s also fair to say it’s dependent on what kind of job the employee has,” Andringa said. “If you’re at your computer screen all day with only occasional breaks, then the pop-up is really sort of a breath of fresh air. We don’t have the data yet, but it will be interesting to see the usage rate for that type of employee, versus someone who’s in and out of the office a lot.”