The hits to consumer healthcare keep coming as coronavirus-induced shutdowns continue to drag on, patients delay non-essential care, and niche clinics and massive hospitals alike struggle with budget shortfalls. But as incumbents struggle to navigate the new normal, startups are rapidly filling the spaces left behind.
That’s especially true for direct-to-consumer healthcare, according to Calibrate founder and CEO Isabelle Kenyon. In the span of just a few months, patients have largely adopted and become comfortable with telemedicine and on-demand treatments in an effort to avoid potentially dangerous doctors’ offices and waiting rooms.
“I think everyone had to do it to survive over the last 3 months,” Kenyon said of the healthcare industry’s move to telemedicine. “You’ve seen the next generation of startups, like Roman and Hims, they did great things to help incumbents get there. If you move the incentives, people will move with them.”
On Wednesday, Kenyon herself is entering the fray with Calibrate, which announced $5.1 million in seed funding led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green. The direct-to-consumer weight loss startup pairs patients with both a doctor and a coach in a two-tiered approach to weight loss that combines medication and behavior therapy in a year-long treatment program.
It’s a novel approach to an industry that has long struggled with overpromising and under-delivering results for patients, many of whom struggle to maintain the strict lifestyle changes to continue seeing results, Kenyon said. She structured Calibrate’s program to go beyond the more traditional calories-in-calories out approach that has underwhelmed patients and care providers alike for decades.
“We know now from watching COVID and how it affects us that Americans are more vulnerable than any other population and that obesity is the number one underlying factor for Americans, which is a signifier of poor metabolic health,” Kenyon said. “For us it was about asking, what hasn’t worked so far? Why isn’t traditional weight loss working?”
Instead, Calibrate focuses on treating patients’ underlying metabolic health, which controls everything from cholesterol levels and stress reactions to emotional health and weight management. Generally, Kenyon said a patient’s metabolism wants to maintain the highest weight possible, and can actively work against other techniques like dieting by slowing down.
“Six months ago, metabolic health was America’s pandemic, and now it is definitely America’s pandemic,” Kenyon said. “Almost 9 out of 10 Americans don’t qualify as having good metabolic health.”
Kenyon’s background as a member of pharmacy startup Capsule’s founding team helped her navigate the tricky world of fundraising when she ultimately decided to strike out on her own, she said. But she quickly realized that consumer healthcare was an entirely different beast when it came to courting Silicon Valley investors.
“Where you run into problems with the consumer inventors is that they are looking for that quick win. They want something short and fast,” Kenyon said. “But then the pure-play healthcare investors didn’t understand the go-to-market [strategy] at all.”
The pandemic and its associated market opportunities have increased investors’ interest in the possibilities of telemedicine, Kenyon said. Now, patients are more willing to video chat with their provider instead of venturing out to the office, and even that has unintended benefits to startups seeking to help treat sensitive and difficult issues like weight loss.
“When you go and get a face-to-face meeting with your doctors and they ask you how many drinks per week you consume, they double it because they don’t believe the answer,” Kenyon said. “If I give you a digital form, and you know the quality of care you get out is reflective of what you put in, people are more honest. Especially when it’s a loaded category of healthcare.”
Kenyon believes that consumers will stick with the digital approach even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed. She said members of her scientific advisory board of nutritionists, researchers, and practitioners have all leaned into the convenience of remote weight loss treatment so much that several don’t see themselves returning to in-person treatment at all.
“We are just cracking it open,” Kenyon said. “The industry is less than 1% online, and the situation has helped widely accelerate and change consumer behavior. Once people get used to it, it’s hard to go back.”