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Harvard Startup Looks to Disrupt Employer Wellness Market

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Recently, I asked Founder and CEO of Gain Life, Sean G. Eldridge, to tell me how he plans to disrupt the employer wellness market. Sean is a health behavior change enthusiast and Harvard Business School graduate. While at HBS, he founded the Wellness Club. Previously, Sean worked in new venture creation or strategy roles at Weight Watchers, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson. He also holds a board position with the Nutrition Council of Greater Cincinnati. Sean is super knowledgeable on all things wellness and healthcare strategy. Trust me, I know!

Marquis Cabrera: What is Gain Life? And, where did you get the idea for it from? What pain point is Gain Life solving?

Sean G. Eldridge: Gain Life is a Harvard Launch Lab company that builds gender-specific lifestyle medicine programs for the majority of Americans who suffer from serious, but preventable, chronic conditions. My co-founder, Dr. John Peters, and I, spent almost 50-years [combined] in the health and wellness space at Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Weight Watchers, and in academia before founding Gain Life. What we realized along the way is that most health and wellness offerings miss the mark on two key fronts: 1) there are significant differences between and within genders resulting in unique health needs, yet most every solution out there is one-size-fits-all; and 2) that weight - a key driver of preventable chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease - is largely a battle fought between the ears, yet most products and services don't adequately address the root of the issue: an ineffective mindset. We at Gain Life build programs that solve these needs, which translate into improved consumer engagement and disruptive long-term health outcomes, all while placing our fees to employers and insurers at-risk so that our incentives are aligned.

Marquis Cabrera: What is your core product(s)? How does it work? Can you give me a use case?

Sean G. Eldridge: Our digital health programs, ManUP Health and PowerUP Health, enable members to transform their mind, as well as their body, through an evidence-based 16-week mindset, activity, and nutrition curriculum guided by health coaches and reinforced by peers, all online (via smartphone, tablet or computer).

Members are personality-matched with a coach who provides guidance and accountability through weekly check-ins and regular video-sessions or phone calls. Members receive peer support, follow an evidence-based nutrition and activity plan centered on achieving metabolic flexibility, and most importantly, complete weekly mindset-focused activities to help them win the "battle between the ears".

One use case would be a 50 year old man with pre-diabetes who finds ManUP Health online while searching for a solution to help him prevent getting type 2 diabetes. He gets matched with a coach based on his needs and starts working with his coach at his convenience (think Rocky Balboa's coach, Mickey, with a smartphone). 16-weeks later he's lost 40 pounds (14% of his body weight) and reduced his risk of progressing to type two diabetes by 85%.

Marquis Cabrera: The many health care gurus I have spoken with believe behavioral change in healthcare is really difficult. Why do you think behavioral change in healthcare is possible? How does Gain Life promote behavioral change?

Sean G. Eldridge: Health behavior change is difficult, but it's one of the most valuable pursuits in healthcare- especially since for the first time in human history, preventable chronic disease kills more people than infectious disease. The future of healthcare for 75% of adult Americans will be lifestyle change, not a pill or procedure. This is why we refer to our programs as "lifestyle medicine".

We believe health behavior change is possible because we've seen it work in multiple instances -- e.g., the Diabetes Prevention Program, smoking cessation programs, etc. -- including our own programs, ManUP Health and PowerUP Health. We credit our long-term health outcomes to our mindset transformation focus, which leverages a broad evidence-base, packaged in a way that gives individuals what they want (reduced health risks and weight loss) while building into the process what they really need (change in mindset).

Marquis Cabrera: Your website touts actual results, not just engagement. Can you explain your results to date on the patient-side?

Sean G. Eldridge: Our one-year weight loss outcomes are two times greater than the "gold standard" in disease prevention and reduction because we focus on transforming mindset, which is the key to lasting change.

The Diabetes Prevention Program achieved 6% weight loss at one-year, however, a 2014 meta-analysis showed that DPP produces 2.6% one-year weight loss "in the wild". ManUP Health delivers 14% weight loss at one year, and PowerUP health is expected to deliver 12% weight loss at one year.

Marquis Cabrera: Have you gained traction in the market with employers?

Sean G. Eldridge: Yes, we work with small, medium and large employers. We find that employers are pleasantly surprised by the fact that we put our money where our mouth is in delivering clinically significant health outcomes with performance-based pricing. On top of that, we offer programs that appeal to both genders, which is unique because weight management programs, including the diabetes prevention program, attract and engage primarily women.

Marquis Cabrera: How do you enable employers, specifically their benefits teams, to keep cost down and save on healthcare utilization costs?

Sean G. Eldridge: We offer 100% performance-based pricing, so an employer only pays when an employee is actively engaged in one of our programs and when that employee achieves a clinically significant health outcome at the end of 16-weeks. This ensures that an employer only pays for an intervention that will help save or contain healthcare costs. For example, according to Cornell University Economics Professor, Dr. John Cawley, an employer can achieve $853 in annual medical care cost savings if an employee with a 35 BMI loses 10% of their weight; and these cost savings only increase with higher BMIs and/or greater percent weight loss.

Marquis Cabrera: Why did you decide to do pay for performance contracts, instead of focusing on engagement?

Sean G. Eldridge: My co-founder and I were frustrated by the fact that employers pay for solutions that largely do not produce clinically significant health outcomes, and as a result, do not help save or contain healthcare costs. We believe that by aligning our company's incentives with an employer's incentives, everyone wins- the employer, the consumer, and us as a vendor.

We do everything in our power from a marketing, technology, and account management perspective to make it easy for an employer's benefits team to "set it and forget it" when it comes to implementing ManUP Health and/or PowerUP Health at their company. We get that benefits managers are busy, and that we are one component of a broader health and wellness strategy, so we want to make their experience working with us stress-free.

Marquis Cabrera: Can you tell me more about how you're applying Procter & Gamble's product development principles with the science from the University of Colorado's Anschutz Health and Wellness centers to your work with Gain Life?

Sean G. Eldridge: Procter & Gamble is considered one of the most innovative companies in the world. This innovation stems from deep consumer insights work, product research and brand building. Combine these consumer packaged goods principles with best-in-class science and apply them to employer health and wellness, and it makes for programs that are highly effective and that consumers love.

Marquis Cabrera: How has HBS helped you move your startup forward?

Sean G. Eldridge: Being a HBS alum has allowed me to progress Gain Life in two main ways: 1) by leveraging a network of classmates to build collaborations with potential employer and insurance partners, and 2) enabling Gain Life to be accepted into the Harvard Launch Lab, which provides access to an amazing startup ecosystem and the vast resources of the University.

Marquis Cabrera: What advice would you give to someone looking to become a healthcare entrepreneur?

Sean G. Eldridge: Spend an inordinate amount of time speaking with and observing consumers in their element, so that you understand their pain points at the deepest possible level. Once you have this deep level of understanding, take your newfound empathy and begin to ask why this pain point exists. Keep asking "why" until you're at the core of the issue. Then ask yourself if you're passionate about solving this pain point. If so, have at it!. If not, find another pain point that you're passionate about. The good thing about healthcare is that there are myriad pain points to be solved. You're bound to find an idea you love that will change the world for the better if solved.