“I have always been passionate about healthcare and advocating for older adults,” said Lauren Driscoll, founder and CEO of Project Well. Driscoll came up with the idea while at the Columbia University Startup Lab in February 2019. Project Well partners with health plans to offer personalized food solutions to diet-sensitive chronic disease and food insecure members.
Food insecurity is broadly defined as the disruption of healthy food consumption because of a lack of money and other resources. By the end of the year, Driscoll was already courting a potential investor. Last month, she cinched the deal for seed money from the newly launched Primetime Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm.
The critical factors for her success?
A great idea and the courage to see it through, being in the right place at the right time and networking.
When Driscoll first met veteran investor Alan Patricof and, later, wellness executive Abby Miller Levy, she knew they were raising funds for Primetime Partners. Driscoll also felt her business theme would be an excellent fit for their unique niche.
Driscoll introduced herself to Patricof at Columbia’s Startup Lab in late 2019. She was aware of his interests in the aging space and thought he would be interested in the work she was doing, which focused heavily on Medicare Advantage Members. They had a friendly chat, but no contact information was exchanged.
Less than six weeks later, Driscoll met Levy through a mutual acquaintance.
“Abby had read the deck I used when talking to health care plans about a partnership – it wasn’t even an investor presentation at that point,” said Driscoll. “But she digested it, understood the value proposition right away and gave me a bunch of actionable suggestions. She’s very warm, but also direct, matter-of-fact and clear. It was an excellent first meeting.”
In the months to come, Levy supported Driscoll with the continued development of her concept. “She helped me start thinking about Project Well as a market platform. For example, I began saying Project Well is a food as medicine offering.”
As the informal advisory relationship continued, Levy told Driscoll not to think of her as a prospective investor. “She really just wanted to help me,” Driscoll said. Whether Primetime ended up being an investor or not, Driscoll already knew that Levy gave great advice and she was all ears.
When Driscoll asked Levy to look at her investor deck in April of this year, Levy suggested a meeting with Patricof. Driscoll pitched them both and, after the formalities of due diligence, the deal was sealed in mid-August. By that time, Primetime Partners had officially launched and Driscoll was one of the first founders to benefit.
A Business Concept Founded on Experience
After receiving her masters in public health, Driscoll went to work in the Clinton White House as policy support staff. She later went to Oxford Health Plans, where she ultimately ran its Medicare business, including screening members for non-medical needs, such as food insecurities, transportation needs or even potential loneliness. From the screening, they were able to connect members with community-based organizations to meet their needs.
“That work ended up being very important,” explained Driscoll. “Today there’s a greater degree of recognition that social determinants of health are key contributors to overall health and associated healthcare costs. But at the time, that was cutting edge and our results were compelling.”
After taking a decade to stay home with her kids, Driscoll jumped back into healthcare. She spent seven years as an advisor for Leavitt Partners, helping private sector healthcare companies navigate the Affordable Care Act. As the firm grew, her attention once again shifted to older adults, medicare, dual-eligibles (those on Medicare and Medicaid) and addressing social determinants of health.
Though COVID-19 was not part of her inspiration for founding Project Well, Driscoll admitted the pandemic increased awareness of the concept of food as medicine.
“COVID has shown a bright light on healthcare inequities and also driven so much food insecurity. In some parts of the country, the food insecurity rate is as high as 40 percent now, where a limited household budget makes consistent nutrition difficult. There’s this extraordinary recognition of the need.”
A Personalized Food Solution
While medically tailored meal companies already exist, in addition to food banks providing food to the people who need it, Driscoll is focused on the private sector.
“Healthy food vendors produce an appetizing, appealing product and there’s a huge range of those vendors out there. That means we can potentially personalize food offerings for individuals, so they enjoy it much more. If food is medicine, you want people to enjoy it because that is a huge motivator to eating well and staying healthy.”
Project Well personalizes a food solution after getting to know an individual, including their preferences, particular circumstances, and clinical needs.
“That can look like prepared meals, meal kits or groceries from a food bank, but usually it’s a combination,” said Driscoll. “Often, our service is structured as a dietary behavior change intervention. We want someone to have a Project Well experience as if they’ve gone through an experimental education program, observing first hand how much better they feel when they eat well.”
Advice to the Over-50 Founder
“Don’t be afraid if you have a good idea that’s pulling at you. It’s okay to start from scratch,” Driscoll offered. Good ideas amass supporters and other people who see your value proposition and want to partner with you. Before you know it, an idea becomes a company that’s serving a mission.”
Some development takes longer, which is why seed money is essential. Because Project Well is a new concept, health plans are just beginning to experiment. Although they ran a pilot with a New York City health system and produced compelling results, Driscoll wants more evidence of impact.
“We need to prove there will be enhanced member engagement, member satisfaction, improved healthcare outcomes and reduced medical cost,” explained Driscoll. “For now, we’re piloting as opposed to a proper offering. We’re waiting for clear proof of concept. We are going to measure engagement, satisfaction, outcomes, and looking retrospectively at medical costs.”
At the moment, Project Well is nearing a large-scale pilot with a national Medicare Advantage plan. “We’re also talking to several other plans and provider groups, including a Medicaid plan serving high-risk pregnant moms, which we are excited about!”
In the meantime, she is building a bigger team and investing in technology that will empower them to better match people with food solutions that delight them and are good for their health. Not to mention, Driscoll has the ongoing advice and counsel from Levy and Patricof.
“The mission pulls me through,” Driscoll reflected. “It’s such a worthy mission to improve the lives of people suffering. Having great minds like Abby and Alan behind me, with their strong networks, is so important in achieving that mission. We’re going to improve the lives of a lot of people.”