Alex Waldron Joined a Team Set on Improving the Lives of the Millions of Americans Living with COPD. Here’s How It’s Going.
An estimated 25 million Americans are battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive inflammatory lung condition whose more alarming symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and constant coughing. People who have COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other health problems. Even so, care hasn’t progressed as much as it has for other chronic conditions. With the first fully integrated virtual care system for COPD, Wellinks is changing all that. Alex Waldron, the company’s CEO, took time out of his busy schedule to answer writer Amy Hourigan’s questions.
Amy Hourigan: Thanks for talking with me, Alex. You joined Wellinks about a year ago. What drew you to the company?
Alex Waldron: Sure! Two things: the opportunity to improve care for people living with COPD, and the dedication and passion of the people at Wellinks, who have been on a mission to help COPD patients since 2017. Many COPD patients feel isolated in their disease, and they’re often confused by the complexity of their medication regimen, the devices they’re advised to use to monitor their health, and how to modify their lifestyle to remain healthier while managing the disease. Building a solution that addresses those challenges with a driven team inspired me to join the company.
AH: How is Wellinks’ COPD treatment different from anything else on the market?
AW: While virtual care models have revolutionized care for many chronic diseases, like diabetes, kidney care and musculoskeletal conditions, COPD hasn’t seen the same level of innovation and investment. There is a huge need for an updated model for COPD care, particularly when so many live with the disease, which is the third leading cause of death and fifth most costly chronic condition impacting our healthcare system. Research shows that integrated COPD care can improve outcomes for patients and reduce costs, but too many patients lack meaningful access to such care. At Wellinks, we aim to bring the same innovation seen across other chronic diseases to COPD through virtual-first care that can meet patients where they are and give them the support they need.
Wellinks offers the first fully integrated virtual care system that empowers patients to manage their COPD. It combines virtual pulmonary rehabilitation, personalized health coaching, monitoring through connected devices and an easy-to-use patient app. This activates our members in their self-management and enables providers to close gaps in care. Wellinks is expanding the capabilities of our current healthcare workforce, increasing transparency and improving patient well-being.
Right now, we’re the only solution focused exclusively on COPD, and are investing heavily in developing a strong clinical evidence base for virtual-first COPD care as we lead this charge.
AH: That’s impressive, and it sounds like a lot of work. What has been your biggest challenge as CEO so far, and how did you overcome it?
AW: The biggest challenge coming into Wellinks was one I tackled with the leadership team: How do we evolve a medical device company into one where we provide a full-stack solution for the care and management of COPD? The digital health, and in our case, virtual-first, landscape has been evolving so quickly, catalyzed by COVID and the willingness of patients to use technology and services to better treat disease. Our leadership team looked at all the trends with other virtual-first companies in diseases like diabetes and musculoskeletal health and the way health systems were integrating this new methodology to provide access and care. We then considered what assets we had as a COPD company with over three years’ experience understanding what patients with COPD really needed, and then developed the strategy to transform Wellinks into a company laser-focused on meeting those needs for patients.
AH: That focus paid off. You recently closed a $25 million funding round. Do you have tips or lessons learned from the process that you can share with our network?
AW: Yes. Be persistent and find the right investor for the company you’re funding. In the case of Wellinks, we’re building an innovative virtual-first company in a healthcare landscape that is evolving to be more value-focused and recognizes the need to improve access. While we spoke with a lot of investors in the healthcare space, many have a more traditional investment thesis in assessing companies. We were fortunate to have had Morningside Ventures, an investor with a strong appreciation for the emergence of virtual health solutions and a belief in their adoption into the wider healthcare landscape, lead the round.
AH: I understand the company pivoted. Can you talk about that?
AW: Think of it more as an evolution than a pivot; empowering people with COPD to live fully and breathe freely has been the mission since day one. The approach we are focused on today started in late 2019 as a result of combining two existing Connecticut companies, Convexity Scientific Inc. and Wellinks. In bringing together the virtual health and human-centered product design expertise from the original Wellinks team, and the health tech focus of Convexity Scientific Inc., we set out to reimagine COPD care.
AH: Despite being one of the costliest and most common chronic conditions in the U.S., COPD hasn’t seen much in the way of innovation and investment. Why do you think that is?
AW: Working for over five years with more than 20,000 people with COPD, the Wellinks team has seen firsthand the frustration that many experience while navigating the current care system. Unfortunately, too often COPD patients who have bad outcomes are blamed for inadequate self-management, when they are navigating a care system that is fragmented and inaccessible and overemphasizes high-cost acute and inpatient care. This has created a negative cycle that is taking a heavy toll on COPD patients. It’s resulted in low engagement, a lack of adherence, and a lack of proactive longitudinal care that’s needed to help patients manage their condition.
We’ve also learned that many COPD patients aren’t aware that it’s possible to improve their symptoms with the right combination of rehabilitation, coaching and behavior change. When the patient community doesn’t understand the benefits that a virtual-first solution can provide, it’s harder to gain widespread traction. There is an element of education that has to happen across patients, payers and providers to demonstrate the possibilities of this innovation.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic compelled changes in how we think and deliver care; however, many providers and third-party payers are beginning to embrace technologies that enable a wider variety of at-home care options. We are encouraged by the explosion of virtual-care models that have revolutionized care for other conditions and are confident in our ability to similarly transform COPD care.
AH: How are you getting your COPD solution into the hands of more patients?
AW: Wellinks is working with leading academic, research and advocacy organizations to grow the evidence base for virtual-first COPD care; we’re also helping to increase access to necessary care by getting an integrated COPD solution into the hands of more patients. In parallel to those efforts, Wellinks is forming and seeking partnerships with innovative health plans, provider networks and advocacy groups to generate evidence in clinical trial and real-world settings.
We know that health technology innovation doesn’t really matter unless we’re able to get it into the hands of the people who need it, and unless it truly engages them in their health. By using patient-centered design and creating a constellation of care through our integrated model, Wellinks helps increase engagement and improve self-efficacy among people with COPD. For many COPD patients, it can be extremely difficult to access in-person care, both because of a shortage of care availability and as a result of symptoms that limit mobility, which is why the virtual-first model is so important.
AH: Is the virtual-first solution easy for patients who aren’t digital natives to pick up?
AW: The myth that older adults can’t use technology has been busted, so our opportunity now is to prove that the people we are working to serve will meaningfully engage with innovative health delivery tools.
To achieve that, you have to design the solution with your end users in mind and develop full wraparound supports that reflect how they are using the tech. If the solution is simple and intuitive, and there is a real human in the loop that they can use as a resource to guide them, there is a greater likelihood that they will stay engaged. Because COPD is much more prevalent among older adults, we made sure Wellinks had all of these elements and would be accessible for this population. Additionally, our virtual health coaching capabilities give our users personal contact with trusted resources, who guide them not only through their care journey but also through their tech journey, as they familiarize themselves with our app. In fact, recent research published in Journal of Medical Internet Research found that Wellinks effectively engaged older adults at a high rate. With the average age of 80, all studied patients achieved the weekly goal of at least one pulse oximetry reading per week for the full eight weeks, and continued to log medication use, symptoms and spirometry readings regularly for the full duration of the study. Eighty-one percent of participants reported that the Wellinks app was valuable, 94 percent said the app is easy to use, and 100 percent remained engaged at eight weeks.
Given the difficulty of managing this complex, chronic disease, this feasibility study shows older adults will engage with a well-designed virtual-first solution like Wellinks.
AH: Those are impressive stats! Congratulations. So, you studied business, economics, political science and government. How did you get into digital health?
AW: I have spent my career working to evolve healthcare options for patients across many diseases with multiple solutions. While I may have started in traditional pharmaceutics “carrying the bag” as a salesperson, I quickly transitioned into biotechnology in the mid-1990s as I became fascinated with novel ways to treat people with diseases that had previously had few care options. The same can be said for digital health solutions. While pharmaceuticals, biologics and devices can chemically, biologically or physically provide help for patients in need, there are many diseases where changing behavior, providing support and managing the disease via digital health and virtual-first solutions can have a profound and clinical impact on disease outcomes and patients’ lives.
AH: What do you do in your downtime, and how do you avoid burnout?
AW: Downtime is always such a challenging concept when in a startup. You have the privilege to work with such passionate people and, in the case of Wellinks, you get to work on a solution that is badly needed by COPD patients. You always want to be working to help the company succeed and to help those patients get the best possible care. I often remark that the title of the book I’d write chronicling my experience in a startup would be “Exhilarated and Exhausted.” Having said that, I’m always conscious of the need to balance life, work and family. My weekends tend to consist of spending time with my family, and if I’m lucky, exploring a craft brewery with friends in New England.
AH: What’s next for the company?
AW: Looking to the future, our focus is on building a great company, growing our team, refining our technology and expanding the value we can create for members living with COPD through agreements with health plans and providers.
We also remain dedicated to ensuring that evidence-based research and clinical studies are a core component of the company’s work. In parallel to new clinical research studies examining both the clinical and economic outcomes of our virtual-first solution, Wellinks is forming and seeking partnerships with innovative health plans, employers, provider networks and advocacy organizations to generate real-world evidence in clinical trial and real-world commercial settings.
We’re very excited about where the company is today, and everything we have planned in the coming year.
AH: Thanks for your time, Alex, and best of luck on your continued success.
AW: Thank you.