Many Americans turn to the latest big idea to lose weight—fad diets, fitness crazes, dodgy herbs and pills, bariatric surgery, just to name a few. They’re rarely the magic solution people dream of.
Now a wave of startups offer access to a new category of drugs coupled with intensive behavioral coaching online. But already concerns are emerging.
These startups, spurred by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from blue-chip venture capital firms, have signed up well over 100,000 patients and could reach millions more. These patients pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to access new drugs, called GLP-1 agonists, along with online coaching to encourage healthy habits.
The startups initially positioned themselves in lofty terms. “This is the last weight loss program you’ll try,” said a 2020 marketing analysis by startup Calibrate Health, in messaging designed to reach one of its target demographics, the “Working Mom.” (Company spokesperson Michelle Wellington said the document does not reflect Calibrate’s current marketing strategy.)
But while doctors and patients are intrigued by the new model, some customers complain online that reality is short of the buildup: They say they got canned advice and unresponsive clinicians—and some report they couldn’t get the newest drugs.
Calibrate Health, a New York City-based startup, reported earlier this year it had served 20,000 people. Another startup, Found, headquartered in San Francisco, has served 135,000 patients since July 2020, CEO Sarah Jones Simmer said in an interview.
Calibrate costs patients nearly $1,600 a year, not counting the price of drugs, which can hit nearly $1,500 monthly without insurance, according to drug price savings site GoodRx. (Insurers reimburse for GLP-1 agonists in limited circumstances, patients said.) Found offers a six-month plan for nearly $600, a company spokesperson said. (That price includes generic drugs, but not the newer GLP-1 agonists, like Wegovy.)
The two companies are beneficiaries of over $200 million in combined venture funding, according to tracking by Crunchbase, a repository of venture capital investments. The firms say they’re on the vanguard of weight care, both citing the influence of biology and other scientific factors as key ingredients to their approaches.
There’s potentially a big market for these startups. Just over 4 in 10 Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, driving up their risk for cardiovascular conditions and Type 2 diabetes. Effective medical treatments are elusive and hard to access.
Centers that provide this specialty care “are overwhelmed,” said Dr. Fatima Stanford, an obesity medicine specialist at Massachusetts General in Boston, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard. Her own clinic has a waitlist of 3,000.
Stanford, who said she has advised several of these telemedicine startups, is bullish on their potential.
Dr. Scott Butsch, director of obesity medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, said the startups can offer care with less judgment and stigma than in-person peers. They’re also more convenient.
Butsch, who learned about the model through consultancies, patients, and colleagues, wonders whether the startups are operating “to strategically find which patients respond to which drug.” He said they should coordinate well with behavioral specialists, as antidepressants or other medications may be driving weight gain. “Obesity is a complex disease and requires treatments that match its complexity,” he said. “I think programs that do not have a multidisciplinary team are less comprehensive and, in the long term, less effective.”
The startups market a two-pronged product: first, the new class of GLP-1 agonists. While these medications are effective at provoking weight loss, Wegovy, one of two in this class specifically approved for this purpose, is in short supply due to manufacturing difficulties, according to its maker, Novo Nordisk. Others in the category can be prescribed off-label. But doctors generally aren’t familiar with the medications, Stanford said. In theory, the startups can bridge some of those gaps: They offer more specialized, knowledgeable clinicians.
Then there’s the other prong: behavioral changes. The companies use televisits and online messaging with nutritionists or coaches to help patients incorporate new diet and exercise habits. The weight loss figures achieved by participants in clinical trials for the new drugs—up to 15% of body mass—were tied to such changes, according to Novo Nordisk.
Social media sites are bursting with these startups’ ads, everywhere from podcasts to Instagram. A search of Meta’s ad library finds 40,000 ads on Facebook and Instagram between the two firms.
The ads complement people’s own postings on social media: Numerous Facebook groups are devoted to the new type of drugs—some even focused on helping patients manage side effects, like changes in their bowel movements. The buzz is quantifiable: On TikTok, mentions of the new GLP-1 agonists tripled from last June to this June, according to an analysis by investment bankers at Morgan Stanley.
There’s now a feverish, expectant appetite for these medications among the startups’…
Read More: Patients complain some obesity care startups offer pills, and not much else