Big Ideas: “Let’s map out, early in life, genetic predispositions for lifestyle-related illnesses & cancers” with Clayton Lewis, co-founder of Arivale

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Clayton Lewis.

In Clayton’s own words: “I was raised by a cowboy father and an artist mother in towns with less than 2,000 people in Idaho and Wyoming. My mother taught me from the earliest age that anything is possible — and I still believe her with my whole heart. I started my career in national politics, working on campaigns and as chief of staff to a US Congresswoman. However, I quickly realized I did not enjoy the dance of legislation, so I joined the private sector at the age of 30. Since then, I have worked on five startups, two that quickly went public. I also served as a venture capitalist, backing entrepreneurs aspiring to build iconic consumer brands. In 2015, I co-founded Arivale, to help individuals optimize their wellness and avoid diseases. At 58, I am having more fun with a clearer purpose than any time in my life.”

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Fourteen years ago, I joined the Harborview Medical Center (HMC) Board of Trustees because I am passionate that every individual, regardless of economic means, should have access to extraordinary healthcare. Good health is the foundation for every part of our lives. I have profound respect for the caregivers at HMC and the many challenges they overcome daily. They are compassionate and provide the highest quality care in the nation to individuals from all walks of life.

Most agree a major challenge of the health care system today is the perverse economic incentives that often don’t allow for meaningful care to begin until a person is already sick. Billing codes are designed to treat one condition at a time, and very few billing codes are tied to keeping you well or preventive care. Until we start thinking about individuals from a holistic perspective — their diet, activity, sleep, stress, work and family environment — and until we embrace an economic model that rewards “well care” vs. “sick care,” we can’t hope to bend the trend on what we all agree is fast becoming a crippling tax on our economic growth: the cost of our health care.

Arivale is leading that change from “sick care” to “well care.”

Can you tell us about your “Big Ideas That Might Change the World”?

Imagine you look at five people on your left, then look at five people on your right. Many of those individuals are living with a disease they don’t know about. Some will be diagnosed in weeks, some months, other years. Many will have had opportunities to mitigate or even reverse those disease transitions had they, and their health care providers, known about the risks and proactively addressed certain lifestyle choices that materially influence the progression of the disease.

Now imagine that, early in life, your genetic predispositions for both lifestyle-related illnesses (the leading cause of death in the developed world), cancers, and even specific age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s were mapped out. Imagine further that we understood which changes in blood markers, like certain protein measurements, indicated a change in a health state. In many cases, intercepting and decoding these signals would allow the health care system to intercept, slow down, or even arrest the disease transition long before permanent damage was done. Sometimes, this could be done with a medication. In other times, it might be accomplished by simply working with the right provider to adopt certain lifestyle choices or approaches we know materially affect many diseases.

Over the last four years, Arivale has improved thousands of lives by doing three things: helping our members understand their health by looking at it as a system rather than a symptom, working to determine meaningful, actionable changes that will improve their health, and, finally, holding them accountable in meaningful ways to make those changes and achieve success.

I send my personal cell phone number and email address to every new Arivale member. I’ve heard over and over again how we set our members up for success not just in their health but in other areas of their lives in ways they’ve never experienced. At the same time, many of our members allow us to analyze their de-identified longitudinal data for research purposes that will help us and our partners improve millions of lives in the not-so-distant future by decoding health transitions and determining the most effective way to either avoid disease transitions or drive health improvements.

How do you think this will change the world?

It’s a fundamental transformation of the current healthcare system. There are three basic drivers for human health over the course of your life: genetics account for 30 percent; behavior, lifestyle, and environment account for 60 percent; and the healthcare system accounts for only 10 percent. And yet, nearly 20 percent of the GDP of the United States goes to the smallest driver of human health — the health care system — with results no one finds particularly satisfying. This is tragic.

Arivale and its partners in the nation’s leading medical, academic, and research institutions all have a common goal: allocate that 20 percent of the GDP to substantially better outcomes by investing in a health care paradigm that focuses on keeping individuals well, not just treating them when they’re sick. Such an outcome would be measured in substantially higher productivity that would be the engine for material future economic growth.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

We’re clearly going to need to continue thinking deeply about data privacy and how data is used in decisions around insurance coverage and job security. Early in my career, I had the distinct pleasure of being Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who was the primary driver of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). This was one of her proudest achievements. Where “GINA 2.0” should take us will be a societal discussion at all levels — the power of data to improve our personal wellbeing is huge. As with all powerful data sets, there is potential for abuse or mis-use if the right protections are not defined and established.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

As a Partner at Maveron Venture Capital, it was always my goal to back Dr. Lee Hood. He is an iconic MD and scientist who has absolutely transformed our understanding of human health on many levels. One night he invited me to dinner, sat me down, and told me, “Clayton, we’re going to change the world.” He then launched into his vision of using Systems Biology to create a new paradigm, one he labeled “Scientific Wellness.” He convinced me that this concept would allow individuals to optimize their health and, in many cases, avoid transitions to disease.

But, there was a catch: I had to agree to become the cofounder and CEO of Arivale. I very graciously told Lee “no” for 90 days. I loved my responsibilities as a VC. I was having fun and living large. Fortunately for me, “no” isn’t an option with Lee. He asked me what I was going to leave behind. What was going to be my legacy? Lee knew my passion is keeping people well. That question is what made me reconsider and ultimately led to my cofounding Arivale with Lee, the best and most rewarding professional decision of my life.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

With Arivale, we’ve developed a program that’s transformed the lives of thousands of individuals — and we are prepared to transform the lives of millions more. But we haven’t cracked the code on how to most effectively reach people in all walks of life. The idea of optimizing your wellness and avoiding disease is new, bold, and audacious. Embracing a new approach to thinking about your health naturally gives people pause when it comes time to push the “enroll” button.

That’s why we are forming strategic partnerships with healthcare systems and companies that are passionate and ready to take this journey with us — to be bold and innovative and willing to embrace the heavy lifting of launching a new industry. We’ve learned with the right partnerships, we see an immediate uplift in the number of customers joining Arivale.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and Why?

  1. In every conversation, listen intently 80 percent of the time and speak succinctly 20 percent of the time.

I love listening and hearing people share their views and stories. Open-ended questions are the single most powerful tool in developing relationships and making decisions. The more carefully you listen, the more you will learn — and the more you will gain insights to develop a thoughtful perspective.

2. It doesn’t matter what you say, it does matter what people hear.

If people don’t understand what you’re trying to say, the first place to look is in a mirror. We own the responsibility to communicate in a way that makes the audience engaged and understand the key points we’re making.

3. Focus on what brings you joy, both professionally and personally.

Startups are hard, very hard. We had an audacious idea to change the world and launch a brand-new industry, Scientific Wellness. In three and a half years, Arivale has grown from a big idea to 140 employees and thousands of customers. The heavy lifting is more than outweighed by the collective passion and joy of our team as we hear our clients share their individual stories of dramatically improving their health.

4. Pacing is a key to winning.

Ironman triathlons are more than just a long day. You swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon. One of the hardest lessons for me, even today, is understanding that a rest day each week makes you stronger for the training — resulting in a better race performance.

The same lessons apply to a startup CEO. I am so passionate about bringing Arivale to more individuals that I want to work every minute of every day. Trying to sustain that pace causes me to lose perspective and start making subpar decisions. So, I am very intentional about taking time away from work.

5. No one cares you are gay.

People want to work with people they like and respect. That means sharing your personal story and being bold and authentic about who you are.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I had a million dollars, and I invested it in Arivale early in the founding of the company. It is the best investment decision I have made.

What principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Three things come to mind. One, remember that life is about relationships. Two, be determinately optimistic. Three, set audacious goals. These principles have guided me well in both my personal and professional lives.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Listen. It’s a simple concept, but if you listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent, you’re going to learn a great deal. It also links to the principle that life is about relationships.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Healthcare is a system that will not be transformed from the inside or through technology alone. It will take a bold vision fueled by true innovation. Arivale has created three innovative assets that are unique in the world of healthcare. The first is a proven coaching program that fundamentally changes people’s health for the better. The second is our longitudinal data set from thousands of individuals, which is unlocking new insights every day on how to help individuals optimize their wellness and avoid diseases. Third, winners will always put themselves in a consumer mindset. We developed an engaging technology platform that enhances the relationship with Arivale’s coach rather than tries to substitute it, the result of which is engagement and retention levels not seen in health care today.

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