Monday September 25, 2017 0 comments
DENVER -- Eesha Sheikh knows too well the pain and humiliation of being an obese child.
By the age of eight, Sheikh was the victim of bullying and harassment by her school peers because of her weight, getting called names such as “the human jelly donut,” recalls Sheikh.
But that cruel treatment ultimately motivated her to take charge of her life -- albeit initially through harmful fad diets and overexercising -- and overcome her obesity.
“I’m using that as an empowering tool,” says Sheikh today.
Taking the lessons learned during her childhood weight struggle, Sheikh has founded her own company -- Playpal -- that aims to combine gaming with good health and exercise to help youngsters and anyone overcome or avoid obesity.
A global epidemic, obesity can lead to diabetes, heart problems, thyroid dysfunction and a host of other life-shortening health issues.
“(When I was growing up) there wasn’t anywhere to go to get educated about those things,” Sheikh said.
But in today’s world, with the ongoing popularity of gaming, Sheikh is focused on helping today’s youth -- and gamers of all ages -- to get off the couch and play an app that emphasizes exercise and good nutrition.
Graduating from Bryn Mawr College with a Master’s degree in medicinal chemistry, Sheikh’s research into obesity jumpstarted a desire to take action.
“That’s what led me to believe in this and build a company,” she said.
Partnering with serial entrepreneur Steve Lopez, Sheikh founded Playpal in 2016. The pair got a boost from Centennial-based Innovation Pavilion, a tech incubator that saw the potential in Sheikh’s idea.
“We’re the first spinoff (health tech gaming) company that’s gotten some legs,” said Lopez, who notes that the moment seems to be ripe for marrying gaming and exercise.
“You’re really seeing this big surge into health tech right now,” he said. “It’s kind of unique. Kids love gaming, so why not take advantage of what they’re into and really try to curb this epidemic of obesity.”
That possibility is especially tantalizing to Sheikh, whose passion for helping to create a better, healthier world is immediately obvious.
“This is what drives me every day -- the change we can bring to millions of people globally,” she said.
Sheikh and Lopez have created a pilot game called “Keeko,” named for the central character in the app who must pass through several levels of play, with the player’s actual body movement controlling the main character’s movement in the game.
The game will ultimately allow real-time competition with other gamers, say Sheikh and Lopez, along with incentives to make it challenging and fun.
And educational, too, with gamers learning valuable nutrition concepts along the way to help them make solid knowledge-based food choices in their lives.
Sheikh said she wants to expand on the Keeko game as investment is acquired. That includes adding artificial intelligence as a “health companion” and a platform that can incorporate other health-based games already on the market.
“This is like one-thousandth of what we want to produce,” she said.
Sheikh and Lopez say they have already drawn strong interest and support from some major industry and nonprofit players, including Aetna, the American Diabetes Association, Under Armour, United Way and Centura Health.
They hope to raise $500,000 to $1 million through a Kickstarter campaign that was set for November but has now been pushed back to January because of the national fundraising efforts in the wake of the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida.
“We were ready to launch, but I’d rather be focused on saving lives right now,” said Sheikh.
The game has already tested positively among young gamers, with a highly successful limited release in the Town of Parker in May.
“We had 300 kids in the park playing Keeko, and they loved it,” said Lopez.
“That was a moment of fulfillment for me, to see those kids and adults playing together,” added Sheikh.
Lopez said he’s confident Playpal can be a successful startup.
“People who see this see the impact immediately of what it can mean,” he said. “It’s got so much momentum -- it’s really exciting.”
Convincing investors to get behind the game will be key, say Sheikh and Lopez.
“The more investment we get, the more we can reach out,” said Sheikh.
“We can impact a lot of lives,” adds Lopez. “That’s what we’re really passionate about.”
To view a video of Eesha Sheikh’s story, click here.