Enabling wellness is the goal of two University of Oregon-based startup companies

February 19, 2024
Trees line the shore of the Metolius river on a clear day.
The Metolius River near Sisters, Oregon, is a favorite spot for Chris Minson, founder of NatureQuant, a company whose mission is to help people spend more time in nature and reap its associated health benefits.

On a weekend away from the bustle of Eugene, Chris Minson dipped into the ice-cold Metolius River, near Sisters, Oregon. Then, he sat on the riverbank and watched the light turn from gold to blue to black.

“I felt everything sink in,” he said.

Moments of calm in nature are frequent for Minson, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Human Physiology Department at the University of Oregon, who spends his free time outdoors—mountain biking, swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, backcountry skiing, and, more recently, just being. But for many people, those moments are few and far between.

Reducing this “nature deficit” was Minson’s inspiration for starting a business. Minson and his co-founders Chris Bailey and Jared Hanley founded NatureQuant in late 2019 to assess how much time people spend in nature and to encourage more exposure. The business’s “north star” is improving health through more nature exposure.

NatureQuant has two main products: NatureDose, an app that prescribes and monitors how much people are exposed to nature, and NatureScore, a tool accessible by website that rates places based on how many natural elements they have that improve health. The website is useful for both individuals and organizations. Minson, for example, recently used it to choose an Airbnb for a family vacation. And the Arbor Day Foundation is using it to find the most impactful places to plant trees.

Nestled between the Cascades and the Pacific Ocean, access to nature is in the University of Oregon’s lifeblood. Consequently, the UO has invested in NatureQuant and is funding research that uses NatureQuant products.

“That was massively important,” said Minson. In addition to startup and research resources, the partnership with the University of Oregon has given NatureQuant added legitimacy and a wealth of contacts.

On the other hand, the business model is essential for NatureQuant. “Without a business model based on a business-university partnership, I don’t know if it would exist,” said Minson. The UO’s Office of the Vice President of Research investment in NatureQuant via the Innovation Fund and business coaching has enabled Minson to quickly go from idea to product and to create additional products that are focused on the information most important to the users.

“Having these companies aligned with universities is a really strong relationship,” said Minson.

A Novel Research Tool

With the funding for research secured, Minson asked Elizabeth Budd and Nichole Kelly, both Evergreen associate professors in the College of Education, if they could use NatureDose in their research on health promotion.

“We understood immediately what was novel about the app,” said Budd. Whereas most studies on how nature exposure affects health use self-reports or proxies for an individual’s exposure, NatureDose is an objective, individual-level measure of nature exposure.

The summer of 2022, Budd and Kelly completed a pilot study on how nature exposure was related to physical activity, stress, body image, social media time, and sleep for more than 100 adolescents. Students in their labs collected a week of data on each participant. The researchers enjoyed being involved in data collection and interacting more with community members. And community members enjoyed helping find ways to improve adolescents’ health.

With additional funding from the Sport and Wellness Initiative in 2023, Budd and Kelly expanded the study to 200 more participants. Their students are in the process of analyzing these data now and are excited to begin sharing the findings this spring.

Another Channel to Promote Health

Budd and Kelly’s health promotion work doesn’t stop there. During the summer of 2023, they launched their own business, ReDefine Health Promotion LLC, to help other organizations improve their health promotion.

A woman stretches in a yoga pose in a sunny, grassy field.
Body size is not a good indicator of overall health. ReDefine Health Promotion strives to effectively promote health and well-being across settings and among people of all body sizes using data-informed, non-stigmatizing approaches.

“We do this in our classes, we do this in our research as faculty members, and this is another channel through which we can do this,” said Budd.

Budd and Kelly were hired at the University of Oregon to research and teach about health promotion and “obesity prevention.” As their work has progressed, however, they have realized that body size is not a good indication of health. For example, inactivity and social support are closely related to chronic diseases and premature death. These relationships are present across body sizes. Focusing on body size as a main health indicator wastes resources on people with larger bodies and low disease risks and prevents people with small bodies and high disease risks from receiving care.

“It started to feel harmful to continue to focus on weight given the scientific limitations of what weight tells us and doesn’t tell us,” Kelly said.

So, Budd and Kelly decided, “Let’s get this mediator that’s not supported by the evidence out of the story,” said Budd. “More and more evidence shows that it’s the weight-based discrimination that is driving poor physical and mental health outcomes, rather than weight itself.”

Budd and Kelly became vocal about their shift away from focusing on body size. As they did, organizations ranging from health care providers to non-profits to schools began to ask for help.

So, the researchers started ReDefine to help organizations promote health in a body-size inclusive way. Kelly said that now, when an organization asks for help, they’re able to say, “Yes, and here’s how.”

Budd and Kelly were able to start ReDefine with the help of the Women’s Innovation Network, a nine-month program that assisted faculty, students, and community members in innovating despite gender-based barriers.

“We really could not have done what we did, in the timeframe we did, with our current jobs, without being a part of the Women’s Innovation Network,” said Kelly.

Budd and Kelly are now open for business. They have worked with pediatricians, for example, to ensure the questions the doctors ask families during annual checkups and the ways those answers are used are rooted in the evidence and are body-size inclusive.

“I hope that our company will be another channel through which we can move the field and society in general away from weight stigma and discrimination and into inclusive health promotion,” said Budd.

— By Vishva Nalamalapu, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation