The old adage “you are what you eat” is one of the most common phrases around, but can our food choices also treat our ailments?
For Project Well, the answer is yes. The Connecticut-based startup is an online marketplace that delivers personalized meals to consumers with diet-sensitive chronic disease and food insecurity and Medicare Advantage members.
Project Well has just raised a $2 million seed round from S2G Ventures, Primetime Partners, angel investors from Formation Capital, and Tom Scully, a general partner at healthcare group Welsh Carson and former administrator of Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services.
Launched in early 2019, founder Lauren Driscoll says this is not your average meal plan service.
“There are medically-tailored meal vendors including companies like Mom’s Meals and GA Foods. And then there are lifestyle and weight loss support companies,” she told AFN. “But we think this combination of actually providing the food as well as the education and accompaniment is novel.”
Healthcare companies are showing increasing interest in the concept of food-as-medicine and are increasingly supportive of providing coverage for meals to address chronic disease.
“2020 was actually the first year that healthcare plans could pay for food beyond a limited basis for their members. By 2021, there has been a significant increase in the number of plans that have decided to take this on. So, there are a lot of encouraging signs but it is still new,” Driscoll says.
Project Well connects a variety of groups, including at-risk provider groups and their patients, or health plans and their members, to food vendors that can provide nutritionally-targeted, customized meals.
It currently works with two healthcare plans across a handful of states in the Midwest, according to Driscoll. She’s actively targeting other plans and hoping to expand into other markets in the future.
Project Well’s goal is to get to know each member and their dietary needs on a granular level. It links at-risk patients with registered dieticians to integrate tailored meals and nutritional counseling into their treatment plans.
“We target plan members who are particularly vulnerable. Frequently, they are food insecure, which we know really accelerates chronic disease symptoms as well as the costs associated with them. We get to know those individuals and their life with respect to food,” Driscoll says.
This includes incorporating dietary preferences, cultural preferences, and any other feedback that makes the meals as palatable as possible.
Are consumers ready to eat for the health of it?
So far, Project Well’s approach appears to be working. Its pilots showed unusually high levels of member engagement and satisfaction, according to the startup. In a recent pilot geared towards patients suffering from congestive failure, for example, 19 out of 22 survey respondents reported improvements or that their condition remained stable.
At least one other startup is tapping into the food-as-medicine theory. US-based nutritional shake maker Muniq offers a line of meal replacement shakes that are formulated with ‘wonder’ ingredients like prebiotic-resistant starch. It closed an $8.2 million Series A funding earlier this year.
And while consumers are largely aware that healthy eating should be a priority, the concept of using diet to treat certain medical conditions may not be entirely mainstream. Many consumers with chronic health issues belong to older generations, meaning phrases like food-as-medicine may not be as germane. Project Well has adapted its dialogue with consumers to meet them where they are.
“We don’t use terms like plant-based; we say vegetarian. Although I think there is increasing recognition of the food-as-medicine concept at large, there are certainly people who live in food deserts or just haven’t had access to healthy food who probably aren’t as familiar.”
The cost of chronic disease
In 2020, the CDC concluded that 68% of Medicare Advantage members suffered from chronic disease. This figure is expected to rise to 80% by 2025. This adds up to a hefty bill. Some 90% of the $3.5 trillion spent on healthcare in the US is linked to costs associated with treating chronic disease, according to Project Well. This includes heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, which can be addressed through dietary changes.
Considering this growing public health crisis, Project Well’s concept couldn’t come at a better time, according to Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer at S2G Ventures.
“During the first phone call I had with Lauren [Driscoll] I was like, ‘We need to do this deal,’” Krishnan told AFN. “Project Well is really at the frontline of convergence particularly with certain chronic disease conditions and how food actually helps to improve patient lives and reduce costs.”
Further marking the shifting healthcare tides, Krishnan notes that this is probably the first time that investors from the healthcare space, food system, and aging space have come together in an investment deal. He also sees a post-Covid convergence of public health, healthcare, and food on the horizon and a rising tailwind from the maturing millennial and Gen Z demographics.
“They represent 45% of the world’s population and they’re voting differently with their pocketbooks,” he says. “The other thing that is interesting for us is the aging boomer generation. They have purchasing power and increasingly, as they age, chronic disease issues that they’ll face.”
The movement from a fee-for-service to a value-based model in healthcare was another motivating factor behind S2G’s decision to back Project Well.
S2G has already started placing other bets on the emerging food-as-medicine segment. Last year, it invested in AI-powered functional food discovery startup Brightseed (Disclosure: Brightseed is an AgFunder portfolio company. AgFunder is the parent company of AFN), for example.