To Sami Inkinen, the founder and CEO of a Silicon Valley startup that helps fight diabetes using the ketogenic diet, his company’s latest hire is “a dream come true.”
Inkinen, who also helped create real estate startup Trulia, founded Virta Health in 2014. Virta encourages patients with type 2 diabetes to adopt a low-carb, high-fat diet, and pairs them with a team of trained professionals who help curb their symptoms. Virta claims patients who use its entirely virtual approach can even get off of medications like insulin, a finding that the company’s peer-reviewed research supports.
Virta has grown quickly. Its staff doubled last year and now includes engineering and product talent from places like Airbnb and DoorDash. The company is backed by leading Silicon Valley health venture firm Venrock as well as Founders Fund, where Peter Thiel serves as a partner.
Newell, a veteran of tech and healthcare, aims to expand Virta’s relationships with insurers, employers, and providers while also serving as an evangelist for Virta’s unique treatment protocol.
“Derek’s job is to scale access to get this to millions of patients,” Inkinen said.
What drew Newell to Virta was his conviction that the future of healthcare will be digital and that Virta has an approach that works for patients.
“I’ve been in disease management for a long time,” Newell, who has a master’s degree in biostatistics, told Business Insider. “And Virta has some of the most amazing outcomes I’ve ever seen. It blows my mind how powerful and how meaningful it is.”
He envisions a world where patients are free to access clinicians anytime from home, rather than needing to travel to see a practitioner in person.
Investors appear to agree with him, steadily pouring money into digital health companies. Last year, funders put nearly $8.1 billion into digital health, up from the 2017 total of $5.7 billion, according to a recent report from digital health research firm Rock Health. Some of the best-known digital health startups include personal genetic-testing company 23andMe, doctor-booking tool ZocDoc, and “smart pill” company Proteus.
Diabetes is a hot area for digital health as well, with companies like Livongo, Omada, and Vida Health all using virtual platforms to treat the condition. Livongo, the best funded of the pack, is reportedly planning to go public later this year and was recently valued at $800 million.
In Virta, Newell sees the potential for the company to function as a specialty diabetes care center, where an increasing number of patients are guided to use the Virta protocol to treat and manage their condition. Most of Virta’s patients get free access to the platform via their employer’s health plan.
The potential market is huge. Diabetes and prediabetes, a common precursor to the full-blown disease, affect more than 100 million Americans. Diabetes is a chronic condition that interferes with the way your body processes blood sugar or glucose. In type 2 diabetes, glucose levels are typically too high and must be managed with insulin.
Virta has faced some skepticism in the past. Most of it has focused on questions about whether its strict low-carb, high-fat eating plan can help people lose weight and get off their diabetes medications. At the core of the diet is the idea that eliminating foods that cause spikes in blood sugar enables people to more easily control their glucose. The concept has attracted the everyone from performance-enhancing biohackers to companies like Apple and Fitbit. Virta’s approach, Inkinen said, is highly personalized to help ensure that it works for each patient.
Research suggests that a ketogenic diet may be helpful for several reasons.
Besides Virta’s own sponsored research on the keto diet, several other studies indicate that the plan is linked to benefits including weight loss, better blood-sugar control, improved measures of A1C (a way to analyze long-term blood pressure trends), and reductions in diabetes medications. Virta’s most recent research also suggests that its approach may help curb the symptoms of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is poised to be a significant burden on the US healthcare system due to the growing number of patients with the disease and no available medications.
“I’m excited to get Virta’s message out there and break through the skepticism,” Newell said. “In my mind, it’s unethical for someone with type 2 diabetes to not have Virta available to them.”
For Inkinen’s part, he spent months looking for someone like Newell to steer Virta’s commercial operations and was beginning to think the right person for the job might not exist.
“I wanted someone with tech experience and someone who knows healthcare as a business from the inside out. As a group of people that’s pretty small,” Inkinen said.
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