At S2G Ventures, we believe a healthier food system is the under-recognized solution to critical global challenges, including America’s current healthcare crisis. Numerous scientific studies have linked poor diet to various chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Our current food system offers an abundance of cheap calories which has led to over 40% of American adults being obese and more than 100 million adults falling under a pre-diabetic classification. We believe an upgraded food system can not only reverse this health crisis but also offer an alternative and attractive pathway to improve health and wellbeing.
For this vision to be realized, the future food system must work for everyone. This belief is what makes us so passionate about our recent investment in Project Well - a new food-as-medicine platform with a mission to make life-changing nutrition accessible to those suffering from chronic disease, food insecurity and social isolation, and at the same time to bend the healthcare cost curve.
Rising Healthcare Costs, Rising Rates of Chronic Disease
America is faced with a public health crisis that continues to grow unabated. Health care costs are consuming an outsized 18 percent of our GDP, and 90 percent of that $3.5 trillion expenditure can be linked to costs associated with treating chronic conditions. These conditions include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity – all of which have the potential to be prevented, mitigated, or managed with a healthy diet.
Unfortunately, 80% of Americans overeat refined sugars and grains and fail to eat recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. In addition, access to healthy food poses a challenge for many – roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population is food insecure and lacks financial resources to purchase or prepare nutritious food. To make matters worse, 66.5% of personal bankruptcies are tied to medical issues further fueling the cycle of food insecurity.
Those with particularly diet sensitive chronic disease are most at-risk. The 65+ year old demographic makes up a growing percentage of that population. In 2020, there were 24 million Medicare Advantage members with 68% of them suffering from chronic disease. By 2025, these numbers are expected to rise to 38 million and 80%.
Lauren Driscoll, Founder and CEO of Project Well, a seasoned healthcare executive, saw a unique business opportunity to help those suffering from diet sensitive chronic disease through improved access to nutritious food. In doing this, she has been able to leverage her years of experience in healthcare to build a system that is advantageous to both providers and payers.
Empathy and Respect for Older Americans
Driscoll has long been dedicated to seeking better care for older adults. She believes older adults deserve greater empathy and respect in the current food and healthcare systems, a belief largely shaped by her personal and professional experiences. She remembers her grandmother who “always adored bringing people together around the table and would put together nourishing, solid meals. There was always another seat at the table. As she aged, she ultimately moved to a lovely senior housing community but did not really care for the food. That’s always stuck with me - that we can do better for older adults.”
On the professional side, Lauren has had a successful career in healthcare spanning public and private sector roles. After receiving her Masters in public health from Columbia University, she started as policy support staff in the Clinton White House. In her next role, leading Oxford Health Plans Medicare business, she started an outreach team that assisted members with their non-medical needs. Her team connected members to local organizations that offered support, including food banks, community-sponsored transportation services and grieving programs. Over her tenure, the outreach team grew from 6 to 20 members and the impact they had on members was compelling, helping shape Lauren’s vision for Project Well today. She notes “That was in the late 90s. Social determinants of health in the last 3 - 4 years have been broadly recognized as drivers of health. I have been convinced for decades that this is the right place to focus. And food in particular is so actionable and impactful. Of all these social drivers of health I really do think that focusing on food insecurity and diet sensitive chronic disease is critical.”
Driscoll left Oxford Health Plans to take time to stay home with her family and children, and later joined Leavitt Partners, LLC, where she spent seven years. Leavitt Partners helps private sector healthcare companies navigate health care reform. Through her many pursuits, Driscoll has been very involved in healthcare reform and supportive of the move to value-based care.
“It’s apparent to me that nutritious food has been a glaring missed opportunity to bend our healthcare cost curve and eliminate unnecessary suffering among those that have chronic disease, so many of which are diet sensitive.”
- Lauren Driscoll, Founder and CEO Project Well
Converging Trends Led to a New Opportunity
In 2019, Driscoll had her lightbulb moment. As part of the Balanced Budget Act of 2018, the chronic care act directed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to extend flexibility to Medicare Advantage plans to cover members' non-medical benefits. Health plans, providers, and regulatory leadership seemed to be articulating the importance of addressing social needs and lifestyle, with diet and food security being a fundamental tenet of that shift. Healthcare payment models started to shift in a way that incentivized healthcare payers and providers to invest in programs that would ultimately lower health care costs.
At the same time, more consumers began seeking healthier food. There is more literature supporting the concept of food as medicine, and there is greater public knowledge regarding the power of food in health. A new breed of food companies – meal kit vendors, on-demand meal and grocery delivery, and ‘ghost kitchens’ – have also emerged, which aim to meet the demand for healthy food and grow their customer base.
Driscoll observed these converging trends and didn’t see a solution that adequately addressed the gap. Thus, Project Well was founded. The company offers a superior solution for all parties involved: (i) healthcare providers want to address and prevent rising chronic disease rates, (ii) people suffering from chronic disease need access to better, healthier food, and (iii) food delivery platforms want to scale and reach new customer audiences. “Project Well is a Win-Win-Win,” says Driscoll.
“I saw an opportunity to start something afresh. I didn’t go into this saying I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to be a founder. Rather I saw an opportunity that no one else was addressing and felt like I needed to seize that moment.”
- Lauren Driscoll, Founder and CEO Project Well
A New Model for Healthcare
Project Well is designed to materially improve the lives of those suffering from diet sensitive chronic disease and food insecurity. The company connects health plans and their members, and at-risk provider groups and their patients, to high quality, nutritionally targeted meals. With highly personalized food interventions, Project Well unlocks the power of food to improve health, slow the progression of chronic disease and reduce health care costs.
Project Well is especially equipped to work with health plans that serve the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The company works with its health plan partners to identify at-risk members eligible for the service and gathers clinical context and lifestyle preferences from these members via their matching application, known as Betty.
The Betty platform is built upon the belief that food isn’t one-size-fits-all. The Betty technology is designed to really get to know each member and deeply understand their relationship with food and the role it plays in their health.
The Project Well team stays in touch with members throughout the course of a phased intervention program to ensure a positive member experience and to support dietary behavior change. Leveraging behavioral science-based approaches, the team at Project Well empowers participants to connect the dots between their food and health, and to thus be motivated to adopt longer-term lifestyle changes where their diet is concerned.
Project Well’s early pilots had unusually high levels of member engagement & satisfaction, resulting in a Net Promoter Score of +90. In a recent pilot program targeting congestive heart failure patients, 22 out of 25 survey respondents either improved or remained stable and 93% of participants that screened positively for being at-risk of depression during the intake process showed improvement at the close of the program. Project Well is building on those early pilots with a recently announced partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Blue Plus (Blue Plus) to study the impact of comprehensive dietary support on maternal and infant health outcomes.
S2G participated in Project Well’s seed fundraise alongside Primetime Partners, Tom Scully, currently at Welsh Carson and former Administrator of CMS, and angel investors from Formation Capital. The primary use of proceeds will be to expand commercialization and pilot efforts with health plan and medical group partners to address their members' most actionable and critical non-clinical needs. The company is working with major health plan partners to provide a compelling platform to address these looming risks for the aging and increasingly chronically ill population.
Welcome Project Well to the S2G Ventures Community! We look forward to our journey together as you make life-changing nutrition more accessible to the most vulnerable.
At S2G, it's our mission to back trailblazing entrepreneurs who are working to build a healthier and more sustainable food system. Entrepreneurs are on the frontlines every day, working hard to innovate and bring new products to market that are making food healthier, more sustainable and more accessible. It’s our goal to support them in their journey and we look forward to continuing to support entrepreneurs that create better outcomes for human health and well-being. We invite you to learn about the innovative companies in our portfolio and hear their stories on our blog Seeding Change and podcast Where We Grow From Here.