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Julia Cheek recently landed in the television history books when she accepted a $1 million offer on the TV show “Shark Tank," the largest valuation for a solo female entrepreneur in the show’s history.
Julia Cheek is, by many accounts, an example of what human resource experts are predicting will be the future of the
pharmaceutical c-suite executive.
A Harvard Business School Graduate, she is highly educated, but gained most of her business experience from outside of the pharma and healthcare industries, before becoming the founder and CEO of EverlyWell. That foundation has helped enable her to think outside the box when dealing with challenges in the healthcare field.
She told Pharm Exec that from a leadership point-of-view, she knew the type of company she wanted to build, the culture she wanted for her employees, and what she saw work and not work in the traditional corporate positions she previously held.
At-home diagnostics is not something new, and many other companies including pharmaceutical companies and startups, have tried to get into the space, especially as patients are seeking more control over their own health. While they have had some successes, privacy and patient adherence issues such as making sure the patient understands how to accurately collect the test samples are frequently brought up. Both were important issues to Cheek, who explained to Pharm Exec how the company deals with those issues.
That outside-the-box thinking recently landed Cheek and EverlyWell in the television history books when she accepted a $1 million offer from businesswoman Lori Greiner on the TV show “Shark Tank.” It was the largest valuation for a solo female entrepreneur in the show’s history as of this publication.
After listening to her speak at a recent conference on digital health, which resulted in much audience discussion from everyone in the room about those privacy and patient adherence issues, Cheek sat down with Pharm Exec to talk about those issues and more.
Pharm Exec: Tell me about EverlyWell.
Julia Cheek: EverlyWell is a next generation lab testing platform that provides innovative, at-home kits and redesigned lab results, all with physician approval and review. We are at the forefront of personalized medicine, focused on transforming the $25 billion diagnostics industry.
PE: How did you get the inspiration to start the company?
Cheek: After personally having a really bad experience with very expensive lab testing that resulted in little explanation from my doctors, I knew there had to be a better way, especially since managing biomarkers is a top contributor to preventing chronic disease. With a few other passionate people, EverlyWell was launched to redesign lab testing to be convenient and meaningful.
PE: Briefly walk me through the process of what a patient’s experience is like using Everly Well.
Cheek: Customers order one of our kits online, collect a sample at home-dried blood spot, urine, or saliva-and return it to one of our fully-certified partner laboratories. Through our technology platform, a board-certified physician authorizes each order and reviews results for accuracy before the customer gets them. EverlyWell then provides a complete, easy-to-read results report with interactive graphics and charts, online, in just a few days.
PE: EverlyWell doesn’t develop the clinical tests, or panels. Instead the company decided to work with already established, well-respected labs to process the tests. This is a major difference compared to similar home-based tests on the market. Why was this way of doing it so important to you, and what are the benefits?
Cheek: All of the laboratories with whom we partner are considered industry leaders in their respective areas and have performed millions of tests. In addition, they are all CLIA-certified, which represents the standard for quality among all laboratories. Many of our labs hold further distinction in terms of approvals and certifications. Our labs all conduct frequent third party accuracy testing in addition to internal proficiency testing.
We offer at-home tests that are just as accurate as a test from a doctor. The platform strategy allows us to partner with new labs and new tests as they become available for home collection.
PE: Let’s talk logistics. Specifically, about getting the sample back to the laboratory. Most of the tests are saliva-based, but some are also blood-based. How do you make sure the sample’s integrity is not compromised when the person prepares to ship it back to the lab?
Cheek: Each kit comes with detailed instructions, and we also require validation data on all of our dried blood spot tests comparing them to a traditional blood draw.
PE: Patient adherence is a much-talked about issue. How does EverlyWell make sure the customer is performing the test correctly?
Cheek: As mentioned previously, each kit comes with detailed instructions, and we also provide how-to videos on site.
In fact, the standard lab requisition completion rate is 65% and ours is 87%. We have less than half a percent error rate with samples, and we provide free replacement kits to our customers when the sample cannot be processed.
PE: What are some of the patient privacy questions that came up while starting EverlyWell, and how have you addressed them to keep your customers feeling confident their information is safe?
Cheek: A lot of customers ask how their data is protected. Nothing is more important to our team at EverlyWell than security and privacy. We protect our customers’ health information with the bank-grade encryption and security. Some of our security safeguards include not hosting any servers or data ourselves. We leave that to the professionals. Datica is our hosting service that provides a layer of HIPAA compliance.
All data is stored using industry standard encryption methods (AES-256). This means data is encrypted at rest and in flight. We always use the latest technology and latest security patch levels, and do not store credit card information in any database.
Our site is only accessible via HTTPS. This ensures a secure connection and interaction with our site at all times. And, we do not sell our customers’ information or data.
PE: Home diagnostic testing sometimes gets a bad rap, because of companies who came before Everly Well. As a new company, how do you separate yourself from some of the “bad actors” that have created that impression with the public?
Cheek: EverlyWell works with some of the most well-respected and fully-certified partner labs and has not created any new testing method. We utilize only existing technologies, and our labs are both internally and third-party validated through regular proficiency testing.
We are also extremely careful about using language that accurately reflects the type of testing we offer and what it can tell you about your health.
PE: Prior to starting EverlyWell, you worked in strategic communication roles outside of the industry. How has your experience in other industries helped you succeed in the healthcare arena?
Cheek: I think being a consumer of healthcare provides a unique perspective as to how and why we built EverlyWell. My background is in strategy and operations. I ran corporate strategy for a public company, earned my MBA from Harvard Business School, and started my career in consulting. So, I came from a pretty traditional corporate background, but always knew I wanted to start a company.
When you are growing a team super fast, culture builds from the bottom up and there’s no time to focus on soft-culture activities. Coming from a variety of corporate jobs, I had been through extensive performance management and managerial training, most of which I intentionally wanted to throw out the window. Getting away from inefficient management and meetings was a big driver for starting my own company. But you still have to have management structures in place and a cohesive set of values, however start-up-y you may be.
PE: One aspect of being a founder is starting from scratch. This can be looked at as a pro or a con. What was your philosophy while building your executive team?
Cheek: We’ve built an outstanding team that brings expertise in consumer marketing, life sciences, operations, and technology. That’s part of why we intentionally relocated to Austin, Texas. Between the technology startup ecosystem and the Dell Medical School, it’s a great time to build a digital health company. I was strategic about filling my own skill gaps with talented people, as well as emphasizing the mix of consumer/ecommerce and healthcare experience.
PE: What is an absolute must when it comes to working for EverlyWell? What is the number one quality you look for when you are interviewing a candidate?
Cheek: We look for candidates with intellectual curiosity, data-driven decisions, and excellent execution.
As we are trying to hit goals, enhance product features, and launch new partnerships, so we are looking for productive people willing to work extra hard to be part of the company’s success. It’s a startup, which may sound glamorous, but is really a lot of hard work.
PE: From a professional standpoint, what keeps you up at night?
Cheek: There are lots of highs and lows as a startup founder. My most important priority is expanding our service and products so that we can help as many people as possible. That’s what keeps me up at night, how we can expand and grow to help millions of people.
PE: How do you think companies like EverlyWell are going to shake up the traditional healthcare landscape?
Cheek: With millions of people either without insurance or fearing that they will be, direct-to-consumer products like EverlyWell are empowering consumers to make better decisions about their health.
Lab testing is cumbersome, costly, time-consuming, and confusing. It’s an outdated process, and notably, specialty tests that are crucial to health management and chronic illness prevention are not often covered by insurance.
With the growth of personalized, consumer-driven healthcare and the rise of out of pocket healthcare costs, the time is now to make healthcare consumer-friendly and transparent. I also think that with more people becoming accustomed to on-demand services that meet your every need, the growth of on-demand healthcare feels inevitable.