Julia Cheek, CEO of the groundbreaking health care company EverlyWell, believes all people should be doing frequent blood testing, and they shouldn’t have to worry about the red tape of insurance or the complication of making doctors appointments to do so.
“People in this country are entitled legally to get the lab testing they want whenever they want,” says Cheek. “If you were to ask 99 percent of Americans, no one knows they have that right. And so there is this incredible delivery gap.”
Cheek’s platform, which has to date garnered $5 million from venture capitalists and strategic angels, is designed to fill that gap by empowering consumers to order, self-collect, and receive analysis of physician-approved lab results to treat and prevent diseases. Meant as a way to empower the consumer to take charge of his or her own health care and as a means to simplify the lab testing process, Cheek believes her company's introduction to the market is perfectly timed.
“Deductibles have increased 70 percent over the past six years,” says Cheek, whose company is based in Austin, Texas. “Most people are now on high deductible healthcare plans, even on corporate insurance, and most people never meet their deductible. So what you deal with is a completely changing consumer rationale. You are now conditioned to know you are going to be spending money on healthcare. That fundamental change is one of the reasons that the timing is now right for consumer-driven companies to succeed.”
“I can get an HIV test, a pregnancy test and cigarettes at my local drugstore but I can’t get a thyroid test. It’s so frustrating for millions of women who have unexplainable conditions and feel like they are unable to empower themselves to fix the problem.”
The daughter of two lawyers, Cheek attended Vanderbilt University and went to business school at Harvard. It was at Harvard that the bright, focused Dallas native began to think seriously about entrepreneurship.
“When I was at business school at Harvard, an entire new set of opportunities just became apparent to me,” says Cheek. “The people who start companies were actually my classmates and I was no different from them. Had I not gone to HBS I would have never considered the entrepreneurial path as actually a career path.”
After working a few post-graduation stints at the Bush Presidential Center as well Moneygram, where Cheek served as the youngest Vice President in the firm, she found herself feeling sick.
“I had this weird unexplainable set of symptoms over a number of months; aches and pains, drowsiness, fatigue,” says Cheek. “I just felt really off and it persisted. I went to all these different specialists and even with great corporate insurance I still ended up paying over $2,000 dollars for lab testing out of pocket. In addition I would get all this paperwork in the mail, with no explanation of the results, no one calling me telling me what they meant and everyone saying I was fine.”
After countless tests and doctor visits, Cheek finally discovered that her symptoms were a result of vitamin deficiency, essentially cortisol burnout. It was from this experience that her idea for a new company was born. Cheek says she wanted to create a platform that would unite the ease of at-home lab testing (made popular by companies like 23andme) with in-house customer service via clinicians on staff to support customer results, as well as having a way to ingest and display data for consumers in a simple way. Enter EverlyWell.
“You have all these specialists trying to pinpoint major issues and yet they are missing the bigger picture.”
“DNA is such a hot topic in the healthcare space right now from a testing standpoint. There are so many implications from a research standpoint.”
In June 2015, Cheek officially incorporated her company with a small round from one angel investor. She hired a chief medical officer and began building the organizational framework for consumers to remotely test blood and urine and get detailed results all from the comfort of home.
EverlyWell, which works in conjunction with six certified laboratories, launched in beta in June 2016 with three tests; food sensitivity, woman’s fertility and heavy metals, working in conjunction. The site now offers 13 different tests including thyroid, metabolism, men’s health, and breast milk DHA testing, which the company is the exclusive provider of in the US. EverlyWell also offers a gifting feature, which allows for consumers to send tests to another person.
“What we learned from the early users was that women make all the health care purchasing decisions generally speaking," says Cheek. "Our test menu was directed to what women would want and also what they would purchase for their families and partners.”
The company grew from $14K in sales in June, 2015, to $250K in February, 2016.
In terms of insurance, Cheek says EverlyWell tests, which range between $69 to $399, are on par or more affordable than insurance offers (other than cardiovascular and HbA1c, as both can be free depending on the plan), and most definitely more affordable for consumers who are uninsured. Additionally, EverlyWell tests are covered by Flexible Spending and Health Savings Accounts.
“If you take each test out of pocket and compare it to the alternative it’s almost always signficicantly cheaper or the same,” said Cheek, adding that as an example, a comparable out of pocket fertility panel (EverlyWell’s is $399) can range between $1,500 and $2,000, while food sensitivity (which costs $199 through EverlyWell) is usually well over $1,000.
“Our long-term strategy is to get our prices down so nobody even has to think about insurance because a $30 test is just worth it,” she says.
Although drawing one’s own blood-which is necessary for many of the EverlyWell tests-may seem a daunting task, according to Cheek, instructional videos and tutorials provide clear instructions to take the guesswork out of it.
“To be honest when we launched in beta one of our questions about consumer behavior was how will that [self-drawing blood] go over?," says Cheek. "I’m sure there is a number of people who self select out of the process because they don’t want to do that but it has not been an issue for all of our consumers [who have ordered].”
The platform currently has 8,000 paid customers across 46 states, but none in New York or New Jersey, as direct-to-consumer testing companies are forbidden by state mandate.
"When you think about health care many areas have tried to be disruptive but no one had really touched lab testing. It was still so archaic and such a huge market and no one [figured out] how to completely rethink the delivery model for the consumer.”
Next for the company will be offering a set of four different consumer genomics panels, in partnership with a large genomics company, set for later this year.
“For many years all the VC firms would say consumer-driven health care companies just don’t work. People don’t engage, they don’t care and they don’t spend money and were now proving that has completely shifted.”
To be sure, part of the EverlyWell model that is so appealing in today's complicated world of healthcare is transparency of cost beforehand.
“Unfortunately if the Affordable Care act is repealed 25 million people will be left uninsured,” says Cheek. “We will be a parachute most likely for that population. My goal is to get our costs down as much as possible because we want this to be an affordable solution. We want to get it purchased on every shelf in CVS, that is our vision; the consumerization of lab testing.”
Cheek says she is focused on expanding EverlyWell in specific verticals as well, including B2B and increasing B2C awareness.
“How we view ourselves in this next phase is growing to be the testing partner for many different companies, whether that’s food and nutrition companies or physician networks or through corporate wellness companies that need their covered employee base to be tested multiple times a year,” says Cheek. “Those are all areas where we’ve determined they have no great solution.”
Cheek also plans to continue integrating telemedicine into the platform (it is currently only available for EverlyWell's sexual health panel) via partnerships with virtual physician networks that can deliver services via Facetime or a telephone call.
“Telling a consumer ‘we have your lab results, we’ve approved and authorized your physician consult and your prescription is called in, would be the goal," says Cheek. "That's already the workflow for sexual health so the more we can replicate that the better. It would be completely transformative,”
The Quick 10
- What's the app you most use?
Slack and Instagram.
2.What's the first thing you do in the morning?
This shouldn't be my answer -- but it's definitely first, check my phone and then, ask Alexa for the forecast.
- Name a business mogul you admire.
- What product do you wish you had invented?
Third Love's bras. I love them.
- What is your spirit animal?
- What is your life motto?
No pressure, no diamonds.
- Name your favorite work day snack.
- What's something that's always in your handbag?
My whole makeup bag since I apply it on the go.
- What’s the most inspiring place you’ve traveled to?
- Desert Island. Three things, go.
My favorite forms of sustenance: coffee, cheese, and wine.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.