Backed by $37M, startup Virta launches with aim to reverse type 2 diabetes through digital coaching and nutrition plans

By Heather Mack

San Francisco-based startup Virta Health officially launched today with a mission to reverse type 2 diabetes. Formed by a team of doctors, scientists and technologists hailing from Stanford, MIT and Harvard – and backed by $37 million from some big name investors – Virta is approaching type 2 diabetes with a goal to use personalized nutrition, one-on-one coaching and remote monitoring to reverse the disease rather than medication or surgery.

“Until now, the only clinically proven way to reverse diabetes was bariatric surgery. For the first time, people with type 2 diabetes have an alternative to surgery, which is risky, costly and not covered for most people, and also to ongoing management with medications like insulin,” Virta Health cofounder and CEO Sami Inkinen said in a statement “Our mission is to reverse diabetes in 100 million people by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal, but we’re motivated every day by the lives we’ve already changed.” 

Inkinen, who is the cofounder and former president of online real estate company Trulia, founded Virta with UC Davis professor emeritus Dr. Stephen Phinney, who brings 40 years of nutritional biochemistry experience to the company, and Dr. Jeff Volek, an Ohio State professor who has spent 20 years researching the effects of nutrition and physical activity on health. By focusing on carbohydrate intake and nutritional ketosis – wherein the body burns fat as the primary fuel source rather than glucose – rather than medication or surgery, the researchers have learned that an highly individualized approach to diet could lower hemoglobin A1c levels.

Blending this expertise with technology and artificial intelligence, Virta has developed a platform for continuous, remote care and personalization for each patient to use online with physicians and health coaches in effort to lower their blood sugar. In a clinical trial run conducted in partnership with Indiana University, researchers looked at 262 people with type 2 diabetes over a 10-week period to assess the impact of the Virta platform. At the end of the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 56 percent of patients were able to lower their blood glucose to non-diabetic ranges (meaning A1c falls below 6.5 percent) and 87 percent were able to reduce or completely eliminate their dependence on insulin. Seventy-one percent of them also saw a weight loss of 5 percent, which is considered a clinically significant threshold.

“These early results indicate that when delivered with continuous online support, a highly individualized care plan focused on carbohydrate intake and nutritional ketosis can be very effective in improving glycemic control and weight loss in adults with type 2 diabetes while decreasing or eliminating diabetes medication use,” Virta’s Medical Director Dr. Sarah Hallberg said in a statement.

Engagement was high, too, with over 90 percent of participants completing their individualized care plan, and the early promises of the Virta platform have attracted attention from both the investment and medical community. Venrock, Allen & Company, Redmile Group, Evan Williams’ Obvious Ventures and PayPal founder Max Levchin’s Scifi VC have all contributed to Virta.

The company is partnering with primary care physicians and specialists to deliver the service, and plans to eventually extend the offering directly to consumers, self-insured employers and health plans. Virta is positioning itself as a referral service for doctors, who can work with the company to develop sustainable specialty care for people with type 2 diabetes in away that reduces costs over time.

"Virta has shown that diabetes can be controlled in many patients without the need for medication or surgery," Dr. Robert Ratner, former chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, said in a statement. "If we can get this treatment to more and more Americans, we can have a huge impact on their lives and reduce one of the most significant drivers of healthcare cost growth."