Backed by $37M, Virta Tries Tech Approach to “Reverse” Diabetes

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Diabetes treatment typically involves a combination of diet, exercise, and drugs. Patients can also choose gastric bypass surgery, which can cure diabetes in some cases. But new health IT startup Virta Health aims to bring data to the equation with an approach that it says can achieve the same outcomes as surgery, but in a less expensive and less invasive way.

Virta Health, based in San Francisco, approaches diabetes through a technology platform that enables doctors to remotely monitor patients monitors and provides real-time data analysis—all via a mobile app. The startup announced its launch today following the publication of peer-reviewed data describing results of its IT-based approach to diabetes treatment.

Type 2 diabetes affects more than 29 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2013—a figure that may be higher due to underreporting, the CDC says. The concept of a mobile app as a part of diabetes management is not an entirely new idea. Consumers already can choose from a wide range of apps that allow them to track food intake, medications, and exercise. But Virta says that its approach is backed by clinical research that it says shows that its technology can reverse many of the biological factors of diabetes.

Virta says the software enables the app to continuously monitor the patient, evaluating factors such as carbohydrate intake, blood sugar, and the burning of fat. Physicians and health coaches have real-time access to the patient data, and patients can also contact them directly through the app for additional guidance and support. This monitoring and behavior modification reduces the need for diabetes medication, Virta says.

According to study results published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Diabetes, the non-randomized clinical trial enrolled 262 patients with type 2 diabetes. The trial used the Virta app to measure body weight, capillary blood glucose, and beta-hydroxybutyrate, a compound whose levels rise when the body is burning fat. Results showed that the combination of nutrition and behavioral counseling, along with coaching and education that clinicians offered through the app, successfully “reversed” type 2 diabetes in half of the participants in the clinical trial.

Reversing diabetes refers to the reduction of the biological measures of the disease. The study results showed that 56 percent of patients lowered their blood glucose to a non-diabetic range within 10 weeks, and 87 percent of patients reduced or completely eliminated the need to take insulin. Patients in the trial experienced an average 7.2 percent weight loss. Virta says more than 90 percent of patients who started the trial completed their individualized care plan. The clinical trial was funded by Virta and all of the authors of the published study have a financial relationship to the company. The study says that patients in the trial will continue to be monitored for two year to evaluate the sustainability of the Virta treatment approach.

Though Virta announced its launch today, the company has been operating in stealth mode for some time. The company says it was founded in 2014. Securities filings show it raised $28 million out of a targeted $32 million fundraise last July. The company has since pulled in additional capital. The company now says it is backed by $37 million in funding from an investor lineup that includes Venrock, Allen & Company, Obvious Ventures, Redmile Group, and SciFi VC.

The Virta approach was developed by physicians, scientists, and technology experts trained at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. The company is led by CEO and co-founder Sami Inkinen, who previously co-founded online real estate site Trulia. The scientific co-founders are Stephen Phinney, a nutritional biochemistry expert and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis; and Jeff Volek, an Ohio State University professor whose research focuses on the effects of nutrition and exercise on health. Phinney and Volek serve as chief medical officer and chief science officer at Virta, respectively.

Virta says it will offer its app to individual, self-paying patients. The startup is also looking for employers, health insurers, and hospital systems interested in using the technology. Unlike most technology services that are offered on a subscription basis, Virta’s cost will be determined by a patient’s performance. In a blog post, Inkinen wrote that Virta’s price will be based on “actual positive outcomes, not transactions, services, or software fees.”