‘We Are Living in the Era of the Screenager’

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Ralph Simon heads London-based Mobilium Global, a company based in Africa with operations in the U.K. and the U.S.

Knowledge@Wharton: I was very curious to see what you are doing in the health care space with Mobilium. Could you tell me a bit about what Mobilium does and how you got started?

Ralph Simon: Mobilium is a company based in Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. It was originally started as an offshoot of a company that had become the first outside Korea to develop ringtones and a commercial ringtone service. This was in the late 1990s when the world was turning into ‘screenagers.’ What is a screenager? In today’s world, people are looking at their smartphone, their tablets, their PC, their TV screen.

This whole notion of “screenage behavior” is now ubiquitous. We are living in the era of the screenager. With our background knowledge — both in terms of working in the telecommunications space plus working in the entertainment space, because my background was originally in entertainment — we felt that if you could gamify using entertainment constructs, health and mobile combined, this might be a very interesting way of addressing some of the important needs of the future with people who are screenagers.

Knowledge@Wharton: So how do you do that through your business?

Simon: Well, let’s take Africa as an example. People do not necessarily have access to formalized medical care or health care. It is estimated that, in each African country, there are almost 100,000 community health workers. What does the community health worker have to connect himself to the patient and data, such that the data goes up into the cloud and can be used by the ministry of health to get an effective or better health service?

Keeping that premise in mind, we approached the largest telco in Africa and we convinced them that they needed to have a health program of sorts available on their devices.

We looked through about 400 or 500 different applications. What we found was that if we could come up with a wheel of 10 to 12 health-related apps that could then be put onto a mobile phone, this could be a way for the subscriber using more data. The participating companies that were in our wheel or aggregation, so to speak, would then be able to derive additional income and revenue by the government subsidizing some of the services like HIV diagnosis or diabetes diagnosis.

Knowledge@Wharton: How many users do you have in Africa? And what are some of the most popular apps?

Simon: We are really at the genesis of the process because it takes quite a lot of time to weave this into the infrastructure of the telco. The biggest [use for it and it’s] in the early phases of this, is distance diagnosis. Rural clinics might be able to key into a major center for their patients using the mobile device. And then, of course, also provide a data uplink.

Let me give you an example. A mother has a newborn, the newborn is ill, she goes to see a community health worker. The community health worker attends to this woman and her baby and then puts the data into her own mobile phone. The data then goes up into the cloud. That becomes the consultation with the community health worker — that’s the record, it’s no longer paper, it’s all digital, it’s all on mobile and immediately accessible.

“What is a screenager? In today’s world, people are looking at their smartphone, their tablets, their PC, their TV screen…. We are living in the era of the screenager.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In which regions of Africa are you most active at the moment? Where do you see the most potential?

Simon: The region where we’ve started this is something that is known as the Southern African [Development Community.] This is South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana [and other nations]. You have four or five major telcos trying to do something there. We will use that as the first step and gradually migrate that to East Africa, West Africa and so forth.

Knowledge@Wharton: Which telco are you working with?

Simon: MTM.

Knowledge@Wharton: In trying to build your business in Africa, what have been some of the biggest risks and how did you deal with those risks?

Simon: The biggest risk was stepping forward and putting in the investment and developing the platform in the hope that one of the telcos would see it as being valid for a new kind of health service they can provide to health screenagers. It was taking a risk entrepreneurially, but recognizing that there’s growth in what is now popularly known as “personalized telemetry.”

People in America would be very familiar with Fitbit, which is basically a measuring device on your wrist that gives you a sense of your body movement, so to speak, or body function. We recognize that more people will want to take their health into their own hands. One of the most important pieces of writing in this area is by probably the leading medical expert in connected health in the U.S. — Eric Topal. He has written an incredible book called The Patient Will See You Now. Topal recognized the patient is becoming much more proactive in his own health. He says when a patient goes to see a doctor, the first thing the doctor hears from the patient is, “Doctor, I’ve spoken to Dr. Google and Dr. Google has said…”

“I’m driven by what’s coming next and how technology can help screenagers have easier lives.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In addition to Africa, you’re also active in other parts of the world, including the U.S. Can you give me a sense of your other activities?

Simon: We’re involved in mobile entertainment and mobile content. We have a mobile games company, which is headquartered in Dublin, in Ireland. We are just about to complete the making of a big mobile game, the first game ever made on John Lennon, the former Beatle. Even though Lennon has been dead for over 34 years, he has 16 million Facebook followers throughout the world. Also, in the area of mobile content and entertainment, we’re deeply involved in mobile Bollywood [Hindi cinema]. It’s called www.bollywoodhungama.com. Bollywood produces twice as many movies as Hollywood. There is massive hunger and interest in Bollywood movies. And there are the wider global Indian constituencies who love Bollywood. We export our Bollywood content to about 45 countries outside India.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where do you see yourself going in the next few years?

Simon: I’m driven by what’s coming next and how technology can help screenagers have easier lives. We are trying to work out what might be an emerging technology with mobile or mobile devices or connected devices that might be beneficial to people [and help them lead] better lives.

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