It's no breeze being a blond female founder of a blood-testing startup--even if your name isn't Elizabeth Holmes.

Julia Cheek, the founder and chief executive of EverlyWell, is sick of the reference. "I think it's a representation of sexism in our space. There are 15 other companies that have popped up in blood testing and you don't hear anyone comparing Theranos to those male-founded startups," she said.

The startup she founded in 2015, EverlyWell, is not, as Theranos claimed it was, trying to invent new blood tests or manufacture testing equipment. It is a direct-to-consumer testing service that lets individuals choose from a menu of vitamin, hormone, or sexually transmitted infection tests, collect their own blood samples from home, and send the samples to well-established labs around the country for testing. Consumers are paired with a physician from EverlyWell's large network around the country for certain results, follow-up, or prescriptions. Also, EverlyWell is not based in Silicon Valley. Its home is Austin, where "we build companies a little differently than on the coasts," she said.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the business model is that it is entirely autonomous of the health-insurance industry. Yes, consumers pay out-of-pocket for tests such as thyroid function ($79), vitamin D levels, ($59), or food sensitivities ($159). They buy them either directly online or at one of 500 CVS or Kroger stores.

Sound expensive? Some of the investors Cheek pitched on the idea back in 2015 thought so, too. "Investors said, 'No one is going to buy this! Their insurance will cover it,'" Cheek said. Her own personal experience, however, highlighted the pains and unanticipated costs patients undergo when doctors order lab tests.

Five years ago, when Cheek was the vice president for corporate strategy at MoneyGram, a Dallas-based money-transfer company, she was feeling burned out. At age 29, she didn't think she should be feeling brain fog, fatigue, and aches and pains. She used her corporate health insurance to see several specialists, each of whom ran lab tests. She wound up paying $2,000 for the services but didn't feel any closer to a diagnosis. "And I didn't even understand what tests had been run," she said. The Harvard Business School graduate recognized an opportunity for industry-disruption.

"I didn't start this company just to serve a niche, either quantified-selfers or affluent people," Cheek said. "From day one, I wanted to create an affordable, insightful product any American can benefit from."

For every critic who might accuse the company of eliminating the valuable role of a doctor in advising tests, Cheek has a rebuttal: She believes people deserve access to their own medical information, and should be empowered to take charge of their own health care.

Eric J. Kim, the co-founder and managing director of Goodwater Capital, invested and joined EverlyWell's board more than a year ago. He'd encountered the company when he was concerned he might have food sensitivities. "I'm not a body hacker or triathlete," Kim said. "I'm just a father of three with a fairly active life." He'd gone to doctors, but wasn't sure what tests would even be helpful. He used EverlyWell's plainly labeled Food Sensitivity Test, which tests the body's immune response to 96 foods. The results told him he did, in fact, likely have inflammation due to consuming certain foods. He was sold on its utility. "All of the tests EverlyWell offers are information consumers would love to have in their hands." 

A couple of socioeconomic factors have contributed to the early success of EverlyWell.
Consumer bills have been on the rise for blood testing, and roughly 42 percent of insured Americans have high-deductible health-care plans, which means they pay a large initial portion of their medical bills out-of-pocket, according to the CDC. Many of those have HSAs, the tax-free dollars that can be spent on testing like that by EverlyWell. By 2016, there were also 27 million Americans who were uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

EverlyWell is tapping into a big consumer need at the right time. It launched out of beta in 2015, and in 2017 the company sold $6 million in testing kits. That rose to $20 million in 2018, and is projected to pass $50 million this year. EverlyWell, which has fueled its growth through more than $10 million in venture capital, expects to become profitable in 2020. (The startup has not disclosed the results of its past two funding rounds.) Cheek had gone on Shark Tank, as well, and walked away with a $1 million investment from Lori Greiner. 

EverlyWell--with its leafy-green logo and friendly-feeling brand--has largely attracted its customers online, and sometimes through social media, much like other direct-to-consumer brands. EverlyWell has more than 70,000 Instagram followers--or about 70,000 more than the testing-industry giant Quest Diagnostics.

Even aside from the old guard of testing, like Quest and LabCorp, there's competition. 
Many well-funded startups--including Ro and Hims/Hers--are racing to bring telemedicine, a small portion of EverlyWell's business, into the future. More than a dozen companies compete more directly with EverlyWell in blood testing, including the Israeli startup Sight Diagnostics, which raised $28 million in venture capital funding in early March, and Dublin's Lets Get Checked, which has $12 million in funding. To keep growing, EverlyWell will need to expand consumers' awareness of the brand. 

Cheek's latest challenge inside her Austin office has been managing the growth of the team as fast as it gains customers. She's brought the company from 13 people in January 2018 to 65 now. Cheek says she's had to work hard to maintain a cohesive company culture, noting two choices she made early on that have helped set her priorities. One was in hiring diversely from the company's outset. "If you don't start from day one, it's very difficult to improve, because everyone looks or talks the same," she said. Today, EverlyWell employees are 52 percent women, and 40 percent non-white. Half of the executive team is female.

The second priority was transparency--not just for consumers, but for her own staff as well. In weekly meetings, Cheek informs her full company of plans and progress, and details her board meetings, investor updates, and sales figures down to the specific week.

"The information every member of our team has access to--you'd be shocked!" Cheek says. Holmes, of course, is notorious for having kept her employees and investors in the dark on key aspects of Theranos's business.

"There's really no comparison other than I'm blond and female," Cheek says.

Published on: Mar 11, 2019