Apr 4, 2013 · 2 minutes

If you didn’t think asthma was much of a problem in the US, this figure is going to leave you short of breath: $50 billion.

That’s how much the US racks up in direct healthcare costs to treat asthma every year. About 25 million people in this country have the chronic respiratory disease, and as much as 60 percent of them live with “uncontrolled” asthma – meaning they don’t use inhalers regularly. That lack of control over the disease can have grave consequences. Each year, uncontrolled asthma leads to half a million hospitalizations, 2 million Emergency Department visits, and 25 million missed days of school or work.

A Wisconsin-based startup, however, has found that by sticking bluetooth sensors on inhalers and monitoring user data, they can drastically reduce the incidence of these preventable hospitalizations, and their associated costs. Today, that company, Asthmapolis, has announced that it has raised $5 million in a Series A round from the Social+Capital Partnership, a group of philanthropists, technologists, and capitalists that use venture capital to create change.

David Van Sickle, the co-founder and CEO of Asthmapolis, first discovered the power of inhaler sensors and the data-driven approach when he was a researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in the middle of last decade. He was hacking inhalers, augmenting them with sensors and chips, and then running studies with rudimentary versions of Asthmapolis’ current software – basically just email reports – to get a sense of how they affected users’ habits and their health. The results from his first study were published a few weeks ago, and they were remarkable. By monitoring the data and sending reports to users, researchers were able to reduce the number of people who had uncontrolled asthma by 50 percent. Overall, 70 percent of the study’s participants improved.

Van Sickle, who has studied asthma in India and on Native American reservations and once worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used that research as the basis for forming the three-year-old Asthmapolis, which makes its money by selling its products to health insurance companies, who benefit from the reduced costs of care for asthma sufferers. If an insurance company is able to move someone with asthma from an uncontrolled to a controlled state, it’s able to save $3,000 to $4,000 per patient, Van Sickle says.

Addressing chronic disease, however, is not just about deploying technology – it’s about behaviour change. Many people who suffer from asthma and don’t effectively control it are people from the lower economic strata of society, holding down multiple jobs, struggling to put food on the table. Effective care is as much about reaching out to those people and supporting them as anything else.

Through Asthmapolis’ sensors and smartphone apps, people with the disease can monitor the time, frequency, and location of inhaler use, and then get personalized feedback and education on ways to improve asthma control. The app, meanwhile, also automatically creates an “asthma diary,” making the information easy to review with doctors, who can also get remote access to the data. The sensors also pair with Qualcomm base stations that plug into power points, so data can still be transmitted to patients – by snail mail – even if they don’t have smartphones or Internet connections.

The 20-person company, which is based in Madison, WI, will use its funding to build up new services around its sensors and strive to reach all asthma sufferers in the US.