Over 400 million individuals worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), have diabetes, living each day on the precipice of health determined by the level of sugar in their bloodstream. The vigilance required to ensure that their levels are neither too high nor too low can often become all-encompassing. A circumstance that Lonny Stormo, co-founder and CEO of the Oak Park Heights, Minnesota-based startup, Pops, truly understands.
Stormo brought his proficiency in electrical engineering and business to the medical device industry over three decades ago. He has served in various executive leadership roles during his thirty-year career at industry giant Medtronic, and even collaborated with NASA. Though his work at Medtronic was primarily focused on cardiovascular health, he developed a vested interest in diabetes care when, in his mid-thirties, Stormo was diagnosed with adult onset type 1 diabetes.
As an active member of his community and an avid runner, Stormo was often frustrated by the encumbrance that conventional blood sugar monitoring would have on his lifestyle. After fifteen years of observing the same testing and tracking regimen, this medical device industry veteran began to question whether there was a better way to do this.
“How can it be with all the advances we were making in medicine, that I had been managing my diabetes the same exact way these years, with the same black zip-up bag holding a meter and test strips and a lancing tool that you had to assemble, ” says Stormo, describing the equipment that those with diabetes typically use to keep track of their daily blood sugar levels, “The test kit was too big to carry around wherever I went. Besides, I was not comfortable taking everything out to run a test in front of everybody and often there would not be a table around for me to set things up on. It was all very inconvenient.”
Stormo suggested that because of the inconvenience associated with this cumbersome approach, many with diabetes, as he often did, would just leave their test kits at home. Beyond seeing their blood sugar level results perhaps, a couple times a day while at home, many do not have any idea what their true status is. That is, until the next biannual medical exam when the HbA1C test that indicates the prior months’ blood sugar level average, is performed. By then, if the readings suggest their blood sugar concentration has been too high, any deterioration to their health that could result may have already taken place.
Poor self-monitoring of blood sugar levels over time is a leading cause of long-term health complications for those with diabetes – complications that range from nerve damage, vision loss, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation to death. According to the most recent report from the International Diabetes Foundation (IDF) citing data for 2017, approximately four million deaths globally were attributed to known cases of diabetes, thus placing it among the top ten causes of mortality worldwide (WHO 2018). Associated healthcare costs, in 2017 alone, amounted to $727 billion USD globally of which 48% was attributed to individuals living in the United States. Americans with diabetes spent on average $12,000 USD on health care in 2017, which is twice the cost incurred by those who live without diabetes (numbers taken from IDF 2017 report).
Stormo recognized that the struggles he faced managing his own care reflected the experience of millions of others in the US and is implicated in the high health care costs for those with diabetes. So, he decided to do something about it.
He leveraged his decades of experience and extensive network in the medical device field to gather a team of like-minded colleagues – co-founders, Dan Davis, Pops’ current Security Officer and VP of R&D, and Curt Christensen, Pops’ VP of Operations – with a mission to improve the lives of those with diabetes. Thus, in 2015, Pops Diabetes Care was launched by this team that understands what living with diabetes is like, and who are determined to make it easier for those with diabetes to control their blood sugar levels, therefore reducing their risk of expensive health complications.
Their strategy involves addressing the reasons why many individuals do not adhere to regular testing. A Reality of Diabetes Care Survey reported by the Canadian-based Medical Education Network (Mednet) back in 2010, identified several of these reasons thus validating what those dealing with these challenges daily have been saying for years. These reasons, further characterized in subsequent studies, include forgetfulness, insufficient time for regular testing, not having all the things needed to test, unreliable meters, not wanting to carry around the equipment for the tests, pain and testing anxiety, inability to test discretely, lack of motivation, and even concerns regarding safe disposal of the used test strips and lances. A daunting list of deterrents that Stormo and his team were all too familiar with.
“If we want people to manage their diabetes all the time and do it better,” says Stormo, “We have to give them a better experience. What we have done is reengineered that experience to make it easy for them to test their blood sugar less painfully, discretely, no assembly needed, anywhere, at any time, with non-invasive, non-judgmental virtual coaching.”
Stormo and his team developed a portable test kit that can (doesn’t have to) pop-on to the back of a smartphone to which it interfaces via wireless connection to a Pops virtual management care app.
“I can now literally check my blood sugar anytime, anywhere while I am on the road for a run, something I could never do before,” explains an enthusiastic Stormo, “One time at a business competition, I was standing on stage and it was time to check my blood sugar levels. So right there in front of hundreds of people, I quickly pulled out my phone and discretely did a test. Simple. No fuss.”
The Pops approach aligns with the current shift in individual behavior being observed across the healthcare landscape. Subject to a conventional system that does not always serve their best interests, patients are less passively resigned to receive services offered as is. Rather they are being more selective about their care and are actively pursuing alternatives that confer better outcomes.
This increasing demand for consumer-focused healthcare services is further bolstered by the recent acceleration in technological innovation. In an imperfect healthcare system, where many struggle to access appropriate care, it is not surprising that individuals are seeking solutions through advanced technologies that enhance the delivery of such care.
A 2017 report by consulting group, Deloitte Development LLC, indicates that over 70% of consumers in the US prioritize access thus are comfortable using virtual health platforms to manage their own care or coordinate with providers. According to Statista, 77% of US adults surveyed over a two-month period in 2018 were satisfied with their virtual care experience, confirming this trend.
“People want to take healthcare into their own hands using technology,” says Stormo, “Previously, we were using technology to connect patients and doctors, sending information to the doctor then waiting for the doctor to respond with what to do, perhaps via a video console. Now people are managing their health directly using easy, convenient, smart technology. And living their lives. This is the next step – virtual care –people are empowered to self-manage their conditions.”
Pops not only includes an integrated virtual care system they call Rebel, but also Mina, a 24/7, non-judgmental personal virtual coach. Rebel and Mina together provide non-invasive blood sugar-testing and monitoring along with basic analytics that inform guidance and support. In addition, everyone using the system is considered an owner controlling how and with whom, if anyone, their information is shared, whether it’s with friends, family and/or caregivers.
“At Pops, we are enabling you to take care of yourself, to own your condition, to own your life,” says Stormo, “You have diabetes, but it does not define you. You are a person first and foremost.”
Last year, Pops’ patented system received FDA clearance. Since then, they have established partnerships with healthcare plans and employers who have included Pops in their employee benefits offerings, promoting healthier employees, greater productivity at work, and an associated reduction in company healthcare costs. In the future, Stormo would like for everyone with diabetes to have access to Pops, regardless. For now, the system is not yet directly available to the consumer.
This purpose-driven company has been gaining attention across the country. Pops recently closed an oversubscribed Series A funding round of $6 million USD as a result of heightened investor interest. The round was led by 30Ventures, a healthcare and biotechnology venture capital firm based out of Madison, Wisconsin.
Also participating in this round was New York-based investment firm, Flying Point Industries and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, a Washington D.C.-based firm founded by AOL co-founder Steve Case that focuses on funding highly promising seed stage companies outside the startup hubs of Silicon Valley, New York City, and Boston.
In a recent press release, Stormo expressed his gratitude for the strong investor support, “We are pleased that investors see this commercial growth as a sign that diabetes virtual care is making a difference for people with diabetes.” The funds will be used to further the commercialization of Pops’ system.
Pops was also recently chosen to participate in the 2019 Winter Insurtech program run by globally renowned startup accelerator, Plug and Play.
Though grateful for the validation and support received this year, for Stormo, nothing comes close to the fullfilment he experienced that memorable day, when Pops received the first testimonial from the first person whose HbA1C levels were lowered – by 1.5 points – using the Pops system.
“The first thing we see each day walking through the front doors is his framed photo – the first person whose life we changed,” says Stormo proudly, “That is what our mission is all about!”