Dr. Lee Hood led the team that pioneered the automated DNA sequencer, helping to give humans unprecedented insights into our personal genetic makeup. He has been involved in the creation of more than 15 biotech companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, and Rosetta. His impact on the biotech industry has been dubbed “The Hood Effect.”
So it’s hard not to take notice when he says his new Seattle-based company, Arivale, will be his most significant yet.
“I think it’s going to be very big,” said Hood in an interview Monday afternoon at his office. “Arivale is the opening shot in a whole new industry called scientific wellness, and it really stands a chance of being the Google or Microsoft of this whole arena.”
Hood and Arivale CEO and co-founder Clayton Lewis spoke with GeekWire in advance of an event Monday night in Seattle where the company officially revealed its plans. As we reported last week, the new startup plans to blend comprehensive, cutting-edge genetic analysis with personal coaching — giving participants specific ways to take action to improve their overall health, meet their personal goals and minimize their long-term risk of disease.
For the past year, Arivale has been quietly working with Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology to pilot a scientific wellness program with a group of 107 people — the “pioneers,” as the company calls them — who gave blood, urine and saliva samples at quarterly intervals, used fitness trackers, and talked regularly with a dietician who served as their coach, helping them understand their genetic tests and identify specific actions to take.
One participant, Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington, learned from the tests that he had alarmingly high levels of mercury in his blood. The Arivale coach helped him discover that the condition resulted from his frequent lunches of tuna sushi. He switched to salmon and his mercury levels fell by half. That was just one of the steps he was able to take based on various insights from the program.
“I’ve made adjustments to my diet, my vitamin supplements, and my exercise program as a result of what I’ve learned,” Lazowska said. “I realize that my genome is not my destiny — I can exert enormous influence through the choices that I make.”
Another participant, Alicia Nakamoto, learned that she had a genetic variant that made it difficult for her body to process complex carbohydrates. She also learned that her genetic makeup made it difficult to burn calories through cardio exercise. She cut down on her helpings of white rice, and changed her exercise routine, and lost weight as a result.
Arivale, which has been operating quietly for the past 18 months, is now moving toward a broader rollout. The company plans to launch a follow-up program in Seattle, where it has already received 150 signups for 100 open slots. In about 60 days, Arivale plans to launch its next group, in San Francisco. Ultimately, Hood said, the company will scale up and roll out its service across the nation.
The company came out of stealth mode Monday night during a private event at the Palace Ballroom in Seattle, attended by about 300 people. Hood told the crowd that “Arivale will fundamentally change healthcare in many ways.”
“Your wellness is determined by two factors,” Hood said at the event. “One is genetics. Two is your environment. Too often, your environment is forgotten when trying to study wellness. That is not a mistake we will make.”
Arivale invited three of the “pioneers” on stage on Monday evening to share their experiences. Tayloe Washburn, CEO of Northeastern University’s Seattle campus, said he discovered he had hemochromatosis after going through the first year of Arivale’s program. The lawyer-turned-educator said he has become much more aware about his overall health.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer,” he said of the program.
Hood said 70 percent of the initial participants followed the recommended steps from the program, an unusually high rate that indicates a strong level of engagement.
Based in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, Arivale currently has 14 employees, and executives say it could grow to as many as 60 by year end. The company’s current projects include upgrading the digital dashboard that participants use to track their key statistics.
The former CEO of Kinetix Living, Arivale CEO Clayton Lewis is a startup veteran and competitive triathlete who was recruited by Hood to lead the company.
Maveron led Arivale’s seed financing round, and Arivale is currently raising its Series A funding round. The company declined to disclose its funding to date. Lewis notes that he will also remain involved with Maveron, where he leads the firm’s health and wellness practice.
“We’re going to invite you on this journey we’re calling scientific wellness,” Lewis told the crowd at the event. “What this means is that it’s a moment in time where you can take data and use that data to be in control of your own well-being.”
Arivale is not the first company to offer genetic insights for personal wellness. For example, one high-profile startup called 23andMe charges $99 for a DNA analysis of saliva samples submitted by participants. But Hood and Lewis point to Arivale’s more comprehensive and consistent approach as a major differentiator, coupled with the use of personal coaches to help Arivale participants take concrete steps based on their test results and goals.
At the outset, Arivale will charge $2,000 per year for each participant, but Hood said he expects the cost of the required testing to come down over time as economies of scale kick in. He hopes that his new initiative will help reduce the cost of healthcare in the future.
“My ultimate dream is a democratization of healthcare that brings it to the rich, and poor as well,” Hood said during the Monday night event.
Arivale has also learned from the regulatory snafus encountered by others in this market, and ensured that its approach meets state and federal regulations.
One challenge, given the company’s model of personal coaching, will be scaling up to work with a larger number of participants. But Arivale has given itself a running start by recruiting former members of the leadership team at health coaching company Free & Clear, a Seattle-based company that spun out of Group Health Cooperative and was later acquired by healthcare information management company Alere.
Arivale is also exploring the possibility of working with corporate customers who would offer the program to their employees.
Hood made his ambitions for the company clear: “I think everybody in the U.S. could benefit,” he said, when asked how big the company could become. “So I’d say 350 million is our long-term shot, for this country. But we’re going to talk with other countries, as well.”
The company says it will work hand-in-hand with researchers at the cutting edge of genomics, using data gleaned from participants, with their permission, to contribute to new scientific discoveries, including the causes of disease. Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology, which is one of the owners of Arivale, is serving as the startup’s research-and-development arm.
“It’s fundamentally going to lead to a transformation of how we do drug discovery,” said Hood. “We’ll do it based on the unique characteristics of each individual rather than averaging lots and lots of individuals.”