How the startup behind Utah’s defunct coronavirus app tried to tap a Hollywood connection

Star Ashton Kutcher, booster of public-private TestUtah initiative, invested in the company that collected $6.1 million for the state’s criticized contact-tracing app.

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Startup tech company Twenty had just signed a lucrative no-bid contract with the state of Utah for an app to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Yet it also faced a hurdle.

Its contact-tracing tool had not been approved for release through Apple’s app store.

But Jared Allgood, a co-founder of Twenty, had a solution to turn the roadblock into a speed bump: the startup’s connection to actor, activist and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher.

Twenty drafted a letter for then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to send to Apple CEO Tim Cook, Allgood explained in an April 8, 2020, email to Kristen Cox, who oversaw much of the state’s COVID-19 response as the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“We have a way of ensuring that Tim Cook receives his letter,” Allgood wrote, without elaborating, in one of several emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. “Please review and we can talk about next steps.”

Later that night, Allgood sent further instructions in a follow-up email to Cox and Kutcher.

“Please send the letter for Tim Cook to Ashton Kutcher (copied). Ashton is expecting the letter from you and will forward along to Tim Cook,” Allgood wrote. “As you know the sooner we can get this letter over, the sooner we can get the app released for Utahns.”

Allgood did not appear to disclose to Cox that Kutcher, who portrayed Cook’s predecessor and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in the movie “Jobs,” also was an investor - through the actor’s venture capital firm Sound Ventures - in a company of Allgood’s that months earlier merged with Twenty.

Herbert sent the letter to Cook on April 9, according to a government email, which shows no indication Kutcher ever took possession of or forwarded the letter to Cook.

In a statement provided to The Tribune by his publicist, Kutcher said he reconnected with Allgood during the pandemic about contract tracing research.

“Of course I wanted to help out during this worldwide crisis but discussing contract tracing research was never a business initiative in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I have never spoken with Tim Cook or emailed with him, ever. I have never received any such letter. Nor sent it. Nor solicited it.”

The outreach to Kutcher further shows how the companies at the center of Utah’s pandemic response — later touted by the actor in his native state of Iowa — tapped their relationships and connections to advance their efforts, whether they paid off or not.

The Tribune obtained the email records referred to in this story through Jittai, a limited liability corporation created in March 2021 by Paul Huntsman, the board chair of The Tribune, in a multistate effort to seek records related to officials’ responses to the pandemic.

Plagued by privacy concerns, Twenty’s app was not widely accepted by Utahns. Three months into the one-year contract — under which the state eventually paid $6.1 million — state officials turned off the location-tracking function they had purchased. Users could continue to check their symptoms or find testing information.

Overall, the app had 129,997 downloads in Utah, or about 4% of the state’s population, according to a Utah Department of Health spokesman. Nearly 3 million people have been tested in Utah, where there have been more than 435,000 cases.

‘Using all of their contacts’

Cox pursued the deal with Twenty for the Healthy Together mobile app, Allgood has said, at the suggestion of Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit that boosts Utah’s tech sector.

Twenty had launched a social location-sharing app, also called Twenty, in March 2019. Cox was interested in the company’s potential for digital contact tracing, Allgood said — the method used to slow the spread of the virus by identifying and isolating people who had been potentially exposed to an infected person.

The new app for Utah would track where people infected with COVID-19 had been through their mobile device’s GPS and Bluetooth data and share that data with health officials. It would also help assess symptoms, deliver test results and warn about infection hot spots.

Ajai Kapoor, a partner with Goldratt Consulting who advised on the state’s operations around the COVID-19 response, said there had been much discussion on how to ensure the approval of the app’s submission to Apple, including the idea of Herbert writing to Cook.

Kapoor was copied on the first email from Allgood about Herbert’s letter, but said he was unaware of the connection between Kutcher and Twenty, adding he has no business interest or relationships with the company.

“I think Twenty was using all of their contacts — whoever they could get to get the attention of Apple,” Kapoor said. “This was an important thing to get done.”

Cox, who left state government last September for a position at the University of Utah, declined to comment.

In the days after Herbert sent his letter to Cook, Apple employees were still hesitating about whether to include Twenty’s app in the company’s app store, emails show. They expressed concern about the quality of the app’s privacy protections and whether it was legitimately affiliated with government.

Twenty’s app would be less private because it did not comply with Apple’s standardized guidelines for contact-tracing apps, Trystan Kosmynka, Apple’s App Review director, pointed out. The guidelines had not yet been released.

“I don’t believe we should reject, yet, because our framework isn’t publicly available, but we will need to begin to consider whether we allow apps that don’t use our framework, both because they will be less effective and less private,” Kosmynka wrote in an April 14, 2020, internal email to other Apple leaders.

Apple then sought out Herbert’s chief of staff, Justin Harding, who was sent a copy of that email.

“Just got this from our app folks. This is the first app we have seen for tracing not coming from a government body — but as you can see below looks like a letter from your boss. Can you confirm this is legit and what you guys want to move forward with?” wrote Mike Foulkes, Apple’s director of state and local government affairs.

Harding, who has since left government to serve as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Philadelphia, said he was unable to speak on the record because of his current role.

Less than a week after Herbert sent the letter to Cook, Twenty’s Allgood suggested to Cox that the governor send the letter again, this time to a direct email address they had obtained for the Apple CEO. Cox forwarded that suggestion to Harding.

“We will get to work on this,” Harding wrote in an email response on April 14, 2020.

App’s key feature delayed

Once confirmed, Apple soon approved the app, and it also won approval from Google. Utah officials announced the Healthy Together app April 21, 2020. With no experience in health care or epidemiology, the company was highlighted on CNN, the “Today” show and by then-Vice President Mike Pence during a coronavirus briefing in late April 2020.

Yet the touted location tracking piece of the app had not launched. At a May 11 briefing, Dr. Angela Dunn, then the state epidemiologist, said at that point, the Healthy Together app was strictly a health assessment tool.

In early May, state officials, along with Twenty, were talking to Google and Apple about how to make the Healthy Together app work, government emails show. At that point, the two big tech companies had not yet allowed the use of location data in contact-tracing apps on their platforms. Still, state officials were enthusiastic about the app.

During those conversations, Cox told Google’s lobbyist — via her assistant — that “both Apple and Google indicated that Utah is a lighthouse to the rest of the country when it comes to our Healthy Together mobile app.”

In a statement, an Apple spokesperson said contact-tracing apps went through a stringent review to be made available on the App Store. But the company did not respond to requests for comment related to any correspondence or contact between Kutcher and Cook about the Healthy Together app, or the letter sent by Herbert.

Twenty did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sound Ventures sent an automatic reply to The Tribune’s request for comment, acknowledging it had received the request, but did not comment.

Besides his investment in Twenty, Kutcher had shown interest in Utah’s pandemic response through his friendship with Ryan Smith, a co-founder of the Utah data company Qualtrics and now owner of the Utah Jazz. In a public-private initiative under contracts with the state, Qualtrics and other Utah companies launched the TestUtah effort to expand testing for COVID-19.

Days after TestUtah was publicly announced on April 2, 2020, Smith suggested on Twitter: “Lets [sic] all get tested. Watch how Test Utah Works.” Kutcher responded on April 4, 2020, “seems to me we should roll this out state by state.”

Within weeks, after Kutcher mentioned the Utah initiative in conversation with Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, she announced the state’s partnership with TestUtah companies to launch TestIowa on April 21.

Gaining a higher pandemic profile

Like COVID-19 test manufacturer Co-Diagnostics, another relatively unknown startup that leveraged its role in Utah’s pandemic response as a launchpad to skyrocketing revenue, Twenty has seen its profile rise since the start of COVID-19.

Created to facilitate in-person interactions with “today’s plugged-in generation,” the Twenty social app is a way to “See Who’s Around, See Who’s Down and Hang Out,” according to the company’s website.

Twenty launched in March 2019 with endorsements — and backing — from media mogul Arianna Huffington and producer DJ Khaled, among others. Twenty also had the support of CEO Diesel Peltz’s father, Nelson Peltz, the hedge fund billionaire, Republican fundraiser and longtime friend of former President Donald Trump.

Six months later, Twenty merged with Allgood’s Lehi-based Juxta Labs and its Mappen app. By September 2019, the newly expanded company had raised a combined $40 million from Sound Ventures, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Live Nation and others, according to TechCrunch. Besides helping users connect with friends, the app also alerts them to events.

As Twenty worked to get its app approved by Google, other emails shared with Utah officials show, Huffington introduced Diesel Peltz to the director of Google Play.

After Utah contracted with Twenty, Florida gave the company its second no-bid contract. Florida paid the company $4 million through March 2021, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Florida Department of Health officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In January 2021, Oklahoma also entered into a contract with Twenty for the Healthy Together app and its use in state universities and colleges. The state paid Twenty $900,000 to deploy Healthy Together on college campuses for one year, ending in early February 2022, according to a contracted spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Health.

Healthy Together also is still being used at Brigham Young University.

But a Utah state auditor’s report from September 2020 concluded that more consideration should have been given to the digital contact-tracing approach, underscoring that it was “extremely unlikely” that Utahns would use the geolocation feature because of perceived government overreach.

The auditor’s report found inadequate planning and communication contributed to a high-priced purchase that was rushed and not widely used. Utah lawmakers also have been critical of the state’s deal with Twenty and the quality of the app it produced.

“The Senate was not directly involved in the procurement of Twenty, nor did we know of Ashton Kutcher’s involvement at the time,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement. “There were legitimate concerns regarding the app’s privacy, which hampered the public’s desire to use the app.”

According to draft documents obtained by The Tribune independent of Jittai, Healthy Together was projected to save roughly 90,000 staff hours through the technology. The stated measure of success in a draft of Healthy Together’s proposed business plan shared with state officials was “30-40% use by symptomatic cases coming in — Don’t need full [population] adoption.”

But internal emails show that health officials estimated that “as much as 75% of the population [needed] to participate” for the app to be effective. In the end, the app did not come close to hitting its targets.

State officials and Twenty pointed out in July 2020, when the delayed location-tracing features were turned off, that the app was still usable as a daily symptom checker and provider of public health information, including testing access. Users had completed about 630,000 symptom assessments at that point, and about 18,000 people had been referred to testing, Twenty representatives said.

When the state’s contract with Twenty ended in March, the Department of Health removed all state-supported functionality, branding, notifications, test results and other data from the Healthy Together app, department spokesman Tom Hudachko wrote in an email. He added that the contract was “always envisioned as a one-year project.”

In Utah, contact tracing continues to be handled by the state Department of Health and local health department staff. Some contact tracing is now automated through a texting tool state health officials use to communicate with people who have tested positive, Hudachko said. The state also offers a voluntary electronic exposure notification tool from Apple and Google.