This week, The Fetch Perth’s Curator, Justin Strharsky, spoke with Jack Owens, the 25 year-old founder of Perth fitness start-up Calico.

Jack Owens and Town of Cambridge Mayor Simon Withers
Jack Owens (left) and Town of Cambridge Mayor Simon Withers

Calico participants have recorded over 100 million steps online, and your mobile app, “Burn & Earn” is in beta trial from this week.  Congratulations!  Tells us a bit about them.

Thanks for the opportunity. Calico (CALories In Calories Out) is a free, SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile) population health concept.. sorry about the over use of acronyms!! Its delivers targeted online and mobile content that motivates people to become more active, by making a potential chore fun and rewarding. Calico has a suite of free online and offline tools that personalise the engagement. The main one is the Burn&Earn app which rewards activity with discounts and special offers from retail partners who in turn benefit from the local promotion.

Burn&Earn could be described as a ‘mash-up’ of RunKeeper, Groupon and a Personal Trainer.

You’re not originally from Australia, are you?  Have you found any peculiarities of doing business in Australia in general, or Perth in particular?

My Mum and Dad bought the family over to Perth from the UK as an adventure, when I was 18. It was a big move, as we have a lot of family in the UK, but all the family has settled really well in Perth.. We love it here.. I did go back and forward to London for the first few of years. I lived with mates in Brixton and got into Uni, so that was a very cool time… and hadn’t quite worked out what I was up to.
I can’t really talk about a difference in business style from the UK. Our partners include councils and big businesses, and I can say this has taken a long time to build relationships and get things moving, but I don’t think there would be much difference in the UK. On the whole I’ve found Perth a very receptive place for new ideas, certainly in the health and IT space. However, it’s all about getting to the decision makers.

You secured a “Proof of Concept” grant from Commercialisation Australia to help fund your project. How critical has this been to your success thus far? How did you find the process of applying for the grant?  Anything you learned about the process that would benefit others?

They were brilliant. Everyone I’ve met at the Dept of Industry was very supportive and they have some excellent case managers.  Our funding agreement finished in November, but we are still being helped by Marcus Christian who is our case manager as part of the program. I’ve also met Sheryl Frame who was very generous with her help and advice.  I would definitely advise people to have a go, but it’s not a simple process.  You need to have a solid plan. There are lots of hoops to jump through, it takes months and it’s competitive. So if someone else has a better idea, or articulates a clearer business plan you could miss out after a lot of effort.

You’ve received a key endorsement from the WA Department of Housing and their support to pilot your product in a new housing development. How did you manage that?

It was all about knocking on doors and making contacts.  We had an introduction to Grahame Searle, the Director General at the WA Housing Dept.  Who saw the community engagement opportunities straight off the bat.. In-fact he saw stuff that we didn’t.  He’s passionate about making a difference, and the key thing was he’s the decision maker so things happened quickly.

What is a Fitness Totem?

They allow people without technology to measure their fitness.. It’s hard for people to judge time and distance.. and if you can’t measure, you can’t see any improvement. Which leads to a lack of motivation.

They also provide GPS gamification for app users.  Calico provide the markers at no cost to councils, installed at 500m intervals on popular walking tracks. For example round Lake Monger in Perth. So people can benchmark time and distance to improve their fitness, and compare their progress to friends using a different track.  The really cool stuff will happen with apps though, as the Fitness Totems are GPS located, and we will be using in-app music cues and games to make exercise a bit more interesting.

Have you received any negative feedback from the community about the totems?  Anyone concerned that they’ll detract from their enjoyment of public places?

We wondered about this, but it seems that being 500m apart is a long enough walk for people not to be too stressed.  We actually haven’t had any pushback from the public, and over 30 WA and interstate councils interested in the next phase of our roll-out.  On the whole they have been well received but we need to do a better job about explaining what they are for.  We certainly haven’t done enough on this score mainly down to a lack of resources, but the launch of the app this should improve this.  One council has asked to change the colour to suit a rural track and we could also look at the height?.  They will only be on popular tracks, so you won’t see these everywhere. But the main thing is to have free community access to a standard system which we can used to measure and improve population health… Because if you can’t measure, you can’t improve.

What’s the most difficult challenge to the success of Calico that you think you’ll face?

I think getting here has been the biggest challenge.  It’s really tough getting started especially if you work with other stakeholders before you have a product.  For start-ups, there is a rule about failing fast, so you work out quickly if your idea has legs.  It’s the best rule!.. However our model includes, the councils providing access to public space, the community providing unidentified data (Privacy is strictly controlled and we never pass on emails or identifiable information to anyone) and business sector who fund the enterprise in return for a unique SoLoMo online and mobile advertising channel.

What major milestone are you working towards next?

Getting the iPhone beta test sorted.  It’s looking very cool – you can see a quick video here. If any readers of The Fetch would like to help out,  we will be sending out the Beta through TestFlight on Wednesday. Numbers are limited, so if you’re game, register today or tomorrow at