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Making music with your pulse -- for health and science

Startup BioBeats plans to join biometrics with entertaining apps to create tools that help you stay healthy -- and that collect troves of data that medical researchers can use.

Pulse, designed by BioBeats, gives users an approximation of their heartbeat using the iPhone camera. BioBeats

In the vision of BioBeats CEO Nadeem Kassam, medical research shouldn't be restricted to a lab. Rather, it should be something that takes place in real time around the world, using readily available technology like smartphones -- and that gets participants involved through entertainment.

That's one of the ideas behind this self-described "big-data mobile-health company," which announced a $650,000 funding round Thursday, with investors as diverse as rapper-turned-film-star Will Smith and mobile software firm Eniac Ventures.

The company's overall concept is a bit complicated, but here's a chunk of it. With a smartphone app called Pulse, developed by BioBeats, users can take an approximate measure of their heartbeat in real time and broadcast it to the company.

BioBeats' ultimate goal is to collect, store, and analyze biometric data -- starting with cardiovascular info and branching out into other "quantified self" realms like sleep-tracking and daily calorie burning -- and use it to evolve mobile entertainment apps designed to help people maintain healthy lifestyles. And, through future clinical-grade apps, it will also participate in medical research that's in desperate need of real-time numbers from people around the world.

But what if promised health benefits aren't enough to compel people to send their heartbeats to BioBeats? That's where the entertainment comes in. Picture these people at a hip-hop show where their heartbeats can be translated into drum kicks or other sonic goodies and become part of the mix. It's the love of music that prompts people to send in their data.

"People that wouldn't normally be turned on to the quantified self, that's how we're going to engage the masses in this process," Kassam said.

Though BioBeats hasn't gotten quite as far as weaving heartbeats into the sonic fabric of live DJ sets, it's begun experimenting with user engagement. In March, the company collaborated on a concert with LA-based hip-hop act Far East Movement that aimed to collect more than 1 million users' heartbeats using the Pulse iPhone app.

During the event, which was live-streamed worldwide on the Net, the band performed a tune called "Turn Up the Love" while a video screen showed tallies of the heartbeats being contributed by viewers around the globe. To further incentivize users, the organizers said the event would be extended if the 1 million milestone was reached. BioBeats ended up collecting 1.64 million streamed heartbeats.

"We used the medium of music to generate data," Kassam said.

BioBeats also participated in a Spotify hackathon at this year's SXSW, where it used Spotify's API to develop an app that would let users create emotion-based playlists (and better round out BioBeats' profile-building platform).

On the clinical front, BioBeats has received a grant from the United Kingdom's Innovation Agency and the British Medical Journal to tackle issues affecting people in both consumer and medical situations, the first of those issues being stress and anxiety, with a plan to branch into areas including cystic fibrosis and asthma.

As for how BioBeats will make money, Kassam said the company is still exploring different paths, like paid apps and in-app purchases on the platform. "We are also exploring data-driven models, where medical companies such as insurers could pay to gain insight into user wellness to provide better care," he added.

In addition to the funding announcement Thursday, the company said it is bringing on board a chief medical officer, Kristin Shine, to help guide its efforts in the health software space.

Here's a promo film about BioBeats' founding and the development of its heartbeat-reading technology. The imagined scenarios -- such as the app reacting to a jogger's heart rate in real time -- give an idea of the various places the company would like to take its technologies down the line.