This week’s news that genetics-focused health-care startup Arivale was shutting down hit close to home for Ali Arjomand.
The 52-year-old Bellevue man was among the first customers of the Seattle company back in 2015, and he says its cutting-edge approach — customized “wellness” plans based on intensive testing and delivered by personal coaches — helped him “move the needle and become healthier” after surgery for a severe gastrointestinal condition.
“It’s sad,” said Arjomand, of Wednesday’s news that Arivale shut its doors and laid off around 120 employees. “I know a lot of their members are probably wondering, ‘what next’?”
Arivale’s current and former customers aren’t the only ones asking that question. Co-founded in 2014 by genomics pioneer Leroy Hood, Arivale was touted as the latest thing in what Hood called “scientific wellness”: using genetic and other high-tech diagnostics to help patients boost their health and minimize their risk of future disease by making data-driven, personalized adjustments to diets and other lifestyle factors.
“We start by getting to know you — the whole you — at the deepest level by looking at your genome, your blood, gut microbiome, and lifestyle,” the company declared in its early marketing materials. “Then we connect you with a coach who will help explain your data and provide you with clear, actionable, lifestyle recommendations.”
Launched to great fanfare in June 2015, Arivale showed early success. A spinoff of Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology, Arivale boasted top-flight expertise: Hood had largely invented high-speed DNA sequencing; CEO Clayton Lewis was a partner at venture-capital firm Maveron. The company raised a total of $50 million on the premise of becoming, as Hood predicted, “the Google or Microsoft” of scientific wellness.
That may have been hype in the extreme, but Arivale struck a chord in a consumer health market that was starting to be transformed by data technologies ranging from Fitbit to 23&me.
Where diagnostic startups like soon-to-be-disgraced Theranos were all vaporware, Arivale had a real product. By testing for as many as 80 different blood analytes, Arivale’s assays revealed “the intersection of your genetic predisposition and your life choices” said CEO Lewis. From that data, Arivale could craft a plan that would not merely improve current health, but help consumers avoid future diseases.
David Duncan, an author and health-care expert who has “test driven” Arivale and other similar services, said its product was easily one of the best in a crowded field. The interface is “accessible and easy to use,” while the follow-up blood work every six months and the calls by a personal coach (his was named Ginger) made it much easier to stick to the prescribed dietary and lifestyle changes.
“Everyone should have a Ginger,” Duncan said.
The problem is, not everyone was willing to pay for one. Although genetic testing has become dramatically cheaper — Arivale’s testing costs fell from $2000 to $140 per patient, Lewis says, the company could never hit a price point that worked for a viable monthly membership service.
By 2018, Arivale was charging $99 a month for its flagship offering, which included initial genetic test, follow-up blood tests, and coaching, down from around $290 in 2015, Lewis said. But at that low price, Arivale needed customers to stick around for at least a year to turn a profit, and fewer than half lasted that long, he said.
Cost wasn’t the only issue. Much of what Arivale was selling was future health, whereas consumers “on the whole are looking for immediate gratification,” Lewis said.
Lewis estimates that Arivale needed at least 10,000 active members to turn a profit. By April, the company had just 2,500 and “ran out of runway.”
Members of Arivale’s research and clinical teams will likely find work with the Institute of Systems Biology, where Hood is still pursuing the “audacious big bold idea” that testing products like these will soon be helping consumers identify health issues decades before they become actual risks. “We were about 10 years too early,” Lewis said.
That’s good news for health care generally, but little consolation for now-former Arivale customers.
“I relied on my coach to guide me with nutrition, exercise and meditation,” wrote one distraught customer in an email to The Seattle Times shortly after Arivale announced it was closing. The news, she said, left her “shocked and sad — I feel as if one of my arms was cut off.”