Year Founded: 2013
Aztec Founder: Joel D’Eon
Technology: Mobile health app that uses health behavior change principles to help people manage stress, eat healthy, be active, and build a routine. The app is currently focused on helping users get through COVID-19.
Headcount: 12 team members
While pursuing his executive MBA at San Diego State University (SDSU) in 2013, Joel D’Eon’s passion for fitness inspired him to develop an app that would help others live healthier lifestyles. With friend turned co-founder, Tony Zappia, D’Eon launched TOVI, an app that guides users toward healthy behavior patterns, such as better eating habits, stress management, and regular exercise.
We chatted with D’Eon about being an Aztec entrepreneur, the guidance he’s received from SDSU’s resources, and TOVI’s recent pivot in light of COVID-19.
There’s an App for That: TOVI has a different approach than many other health apps on the market today. “As we started to make early versions of the app, what we learned is that helping people improve their health, if you want to do it well, is harder than you think. It’s not as simple as just providing people with access to information,” D’Eon said, explaining that instead of simply giving users workouts or healthy recipes, TOVI had to help users create lasting changes in their behaviors.
“The TOVI app creates a very personalized experience that learns about the user and guides them through the process of adopting new health-related behaviors,” he added. For instance, when a user first downloads the app, it will ask them a series of questions, including their current pain points and their future health goals.
Although such psychological services have traditionally been given in person, D’Eon, who spent much of his career working in software, had a vision of providing that same service in an app form. “We basically have virtualized the techniques that are often used in the field of health psychology,” he said. Health psychology focuses on psychological and behavioral processes, and is concerned with understanding how psychological and behavioral factors contribute to physical health and illness.
Pandemic Pivot: Until recently, TOVI’s focus was on the employee health space. “We would sell it to companies and companies would offer it to their employees to help them be healthier and manage stress better,” D’Eon said.
However, soon after the global pandemic changed people’s everyday lives and routines, the TOVI team decided to pivot.
“We were focusing on B2B sales opportunities, but when the pandemic hit, we decided to pivot because we felt that our expertise and platform could do a lot of good in a time where people need help,” D’Eon said. The startup’s unique position allowed them to put something together quickly while providing positive impact to a broader audience.
“With this foundation of a behavior change platform, we redesigned all aspects of the app, with the focus of keeping people mentally and physically healthy while they’re in isolation and/or working from home,” D’Eon explained.
With a questionnaire, the app first learns your current circumstances – whether you’re working from home, have recently been laid off, etc – and learns how you’re dealing with it, how you’re feeling about it, and where you would like help. “We broadly help in four areas right now,” D’Eon said.
The four areas TOVI helps its users tackle include (1) building a new routine; (2) stay active, which D’Eon said is especially important considering people’s activity levels have dropped roughly 30 percent since stay-at-home orders took effect; (3) eating healthy; and (4) managing stress. Once users select one of the four areas, TOVI guides them through the process of adopting new habits and behaviors. The app also reminds users to take breaks to stand up, go for a walk, and overall add rituals to their life.
“That can be as simple as recommending that they take a break for lunch. This is something that’s easy to stop doing now,” D’Eon said.
Before work-from-home became the norm, virtually everyone had daily rituals that would sandwich their time at work. For instance, walking or driving to work in the morning would help people mentally prepare for the work day ahead, and leaving work to go to, say, the gym, would help people mark the end of their day in order to unwind into rest mode.
“Not only are we recommending the activities and explaining the benefits of the activities, we’re providing users with expert articles and tips on how to put these activities into practice,” D’Eon said. “We’re providing users with a tool that gives them ongoing support and guidance.”
The TOVI team is making their app available to anyone who wants to download it, free of charge.
From Snow to Sandy Beaches: Originally from Canada, D’Eon earned his bachelor’s degree at Dalhousie University in the country’s Nova Scotia province. After his 1998 graduation, D’Eon worked in the tech industry, gradually making his way down to sunny San Diego. But before committing to the SoCal lifestyle, he worked in the Silicon Valley tech scene, at a telecommunications company. A couple years into his stint in San Jose, D’Eon’s now wife was accepted into a Ph.D. program at UC San Diego. Although the couple had no prior connection to the up-and-coming city, they were drawn to the San Diego lifestyle and decided to make the move.
Although D’Eon was living in San Diego, he was working remotely for a Canadian tech company. About fifteen years after beginning his career, D’Eon enrolled in San Diego State University’s executive MBA program, which provides students with weekend classes, allowing them to keep their full-time jobs throughout the program. He completed his master’s program in 2014.
The employee-focused version of TOVI was founded in 2016, but the initial concept was something D’Eon had come up with in 2013, during his time as a graduate student.
From Idea to Incubator: As a graduate student, D’Eon was passionate about fitness, and he wanted to find a way to help people improve their health. Entrepreneurship was something he had always wanted to pursue at some point, and the idea for a business that was so in line with his personal values pushed D’Eon to take the leap.
Early into his graduate program at SDSU, D’Eon found the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad, which was known as the Zahn Center at the time. The incubator supports SDSU’s students, faculty, and staff in their entrepreneurial endeavors, providing guidance, mentorship, networking opportunities, and even non-dilutive funding.
The TOVI team took full advantage of the center’s offerings, including its vast network. “Through meetings and presentations, we were introduced to our angel investor,” D’Eon said.
Over time, the startup raised about $5 million total from that single investor, and the TOVI team’s relationship with the individual remains strong today, even several years after leaving the on-campus incubator that brought them together. “So basically, our entire funding came through one introduction at the Zahn Center,” D’Eon said.
Team of Aztecs: TOVI’s link to SDSU’s ZIP Launchpad helped the startup attract talent, which was especially helpful in its early days. As a result, the 12-strong team consists of a few Aztecs. “We have had a number of interns work with us, and three of them joined us full time. So we have a very strong SDSU connection on our team,” D’Eon said.
The team also consists of three Ph.D.-level experts who specialize in exercise, nutrition, and stress, respectively.
While D’Eon and some of his team enjoy sunny days in San Diego, the other half of the TOVI team, including CTO and co-founder Tony Zappia, is based in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.
When it came time to find a co-founder, D’Eon had a good idea of who it would be. He and Zappia were friends long before the genesis of TOVI.
“We met when we were both doing our first jobs as software engineers in Ottawa, and he’s somebody that I maintained a friendship with. As we moved on to different parts of our careers, we stayed in touch,” D’Eon said. “When I was considering starting up, and I knew I needed somebody to take care of building the app, it was a no brainer.”
San Diego Scene: Although he’s heard about struggles to find Series A funding, D’Eon’s personal experience in the local tech scene has been a positive one. “For our stage, it’s been great. There’s lots of good people in the city and we’ve been fortunate to find strong angel support that’s gotten us to this point,” he said.
Looking Ahead: It’s safe to say TOVI’s year – along with every other business’s year – is not going according to plan. The startup did not anticipate pivoting and redesigning the app, so D’Eon is not quite sure what to expect for the year ahead, frankly, not even the next few months.
“We’re keeping our options open. Our immediate plans are to continue to iterate. We have a lot of improvements in mind and a lot of new things we want to add to the app to help us meet our objective of helping people in this situation. Once we get to a certain point, then we’ll be at the point where we have to make our business decisions as to which path we take and how we would monetize it. It’s not something we’re forcing ourselves to try to answer right now,” D’Eon said.
Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: When it comes to tacos, you would have found a pre-COVID D’Eon over at a local favorite. “Our offices are in La Jolla Village, so I really like Puesto,” he said.
Hoppy Place: The Canada native also loves the local craft beer scene. “I have lots of favorites, but the one I have the most affection for is Culture Brewing,” D’Eon said. His favorite location to frequent is the one in Solana Beach.
Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (students and alumni) who are building the tech startups of tomorrow. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.