By Marika Sboros
For diabetes treatment of the future, look no further than Virta Health. The US start-up is an online specialty medical clinic with a brilliant app for type 2 diabetics. It is on track to achieve a holy grail: a diabetes ‘cure’ without drugs or surgery.
It’s the closest that modern medicine comes to a ‘cure’ for the global epidemic.
Virta Health‘s ‘cure’ is safe, sustainable, cheap and accessible. Virta is about to publish research on its method that looks set to be a game-changer. It’s the largest and longest trial using the ketogenic (very low-carb, high-fat) diet to treat type 2 diabetes.
The visionary founder behind Virta is its 41-year-old Finnish-born CEO, Sami Inkinen. He’s a data-driven technology entrepreneur and multi-millionaire philanthropist. His co-founders are the ‘fathers’ of ketogenic diets: Prof Stephen Phinney and Prof Jeff Volek. I call them the ‘kings of ketosis’.
Yet ketogenic diets are still controversial, despite significant and growing anecdotal evidence. Many doctors and dietitians still believe that ketogenic diets will be killers rather than saviours of diabetics.
These doctors and dietitians confuse ketosis, a normal bodily state, with ketoacidosis. The latter is a potentially fatal condition seen mostly in type 1 diabetics. These doctors and dietitians are also pessimists.
They tell patients that diabetes is necessarily chronic and progressive. They say that it ups their risk of heart attack, kidney failure and limb loss. And they tell patients that they’ll have to take drugs for a lifetime to control their condition.
Thus, they are stuck in the pharmaceutical model of disease. That model succeeds in many acute conditions. However, for chronic diseases of lifestyle, it often fails abjectly.
Click here to read: ‘Cure’ for type 2 diabetes: a doctor’s journey
Doctors and scientists running Virta Health are optimistic and generating massive interest worldwide. Inkinen‘s mission is to reverse diabetes in 100 million people by 2025. That can seem conservative given that more than 420 million people currently live with diabetes globally. As of July 18, 2017, 98% of Americans have access to Virta Clinic to reverse their type 2 diabetes. Soon all states will have it, making its coverage 100%.
And while Virta Health’s focus is type 2 diabetes, Inkinen’s vision is elastic. He stretches it to include all chronic diseases of lifestyle.
Inkinen, Volek and Phinney designed Virta Health as an online clinic specifically to reverse type 2 diabetes. Moreover, they aimed for reversal without risks, costs, or side effects of medication or surgery.
MedTech named Virta Health its best start-up for 2017. Business Insider named it one of its top 17 start-ups to watch in 2017. On the Aspen Institute’s list of Health Innovators Fellowship for 2017 is Virta’s medical director Dr Sarah Hallberg. That’s no real surprise.
It points to what Inkinen says is the key to Virta’s successful treatment model: the doctors and scientists he has gathered together to help patients fight diabetes.
He almost literally designed Virta to put these doctors and scientists ‘in patients’ pockets through the smartphones’. This means that patients with diabetes are never alone in their journey to reverse their condition, he says.
Inkinen has a fascinating background that includes a personal connection to diabetes. Forbes named Ikinen one of its top ‘Thrillionnaires’ because of his penchant for extreme exploits at work and at play.
Inkinen calls himself an ‘incurable data geek’ – which he is and so much more. He has a masters degree in engineering (physics department) and did a brief stint at a nuclear power plant as a radio chemist, before leaving behind forever the world of radio active water samples.
Inkinen thinks nothing of working 90-hour weeks as long as he loves what he is doing. His life mantra is a seductive one: ‘When profits fuel purpose, magic happens’. And so he has purposefully made magic with Virta Health.
Click here to read: Who gets type 2 diabetes? Addicts and athletes!
Through various business and business development roles at Nokia, Microsoft and McKinsey & Co, he co-founded Trulia, the real estate website in 2005. Inkinen took it public in 2012, for $2.5 billion. He made a cool $3.88 million on the IPO (initial public offering). That same year, his personal connection to diabetes showed up.
Inkinen is an extreme athlete who does triathlons as a hobby. He has done seven Iron Man triathlons and was a world champion in his age group. A Fortune magazine profile calls him a ‘fitness freak even by Silicon Valley standards’. It also calls him ‘a champion who obsessively tracks his biometrics’.
Despite being in the peak of physical fitness, Inkinen was stunned to notice something worrying about his blood sugar levels in 2012. He realised he had the symptoms of prediabetes.
In retrospect, Inkinen made a brave move. He did his own research instead of opting for orthodox medicine as first resort. What he found led him to eschew drugs. Instead, he switched to a low-carb, high-fat diet.
As the Fortune article notes, ‘as his blood sugar levels dropped, his excitement spiked’. The rest is Virta’s amazing history.
Inkinen doesn’t believe in resting on any of his many laurels. In August 2014, he and wife Meredith Loring did something spectacular. With zero rowing experience, they finished the race from California to Hawaii in 45 days.
That made them the fastest pair ever to row across the Pacific.
The couple didn’t do it just for the ‘fun’ and danger. Inkinen and Loring raised more than $200,000 for a cause close to their hearts. They wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of diets high in sugar and simple carbohydrates.
Not surprisingly, they used fat, not carbs, for their dietary fuel throughout their journey. They deliberately had no junk food on board whatsoever. The couple called their journey the Fat Chance Row. It is nothing short of inspirational. But then it’s in Inkinen’s DNA to push boundaries and challenge dogma.
Prof Stephen Phinney has spent more than 35 years studying diet, exercise, fatty acids, and inflammation. He graduated as a doctor from Stanford University. Phinney also has a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did post-doctoral training at Harvard.
He has published over 70 papers and several patents. Phinney coined the term ‘nutritional ketosis’ years ago to distinguish it from ketoacidosis. Despite that, ketosis is still the subject of fear and loathing among doctors and dietitians.
Prof Jeff Volek is Phinney’s warrior partner in arms in the war against ignorance about diet and ketosis. Volek is an associate professor in Ohio State University Department of Kinesiology.
His significant work is a series of studies over the last 15 years aimed at better understanding of well-formulated LCHF diets. His focus is the impact on obesity, body composition, adaptations to training and overall metabolic health.
Together, Volek and Phinney run the Art and Science of Low Carb website. It’s a treasure trove for those who would rather not take drugs to treat or prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle. Among these are obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
Still, some doctors insist that diabetes is not reversible. However, that’s really just semantics.
South African scientist and medical doctor Prof Tim Noakes is one of Virta Health’s biggest supporters. Noakes says that patients can put their diabetes ‘into full remission’ by eating properly. He should know as he is a type 2 diabetic.
Noakes controls his diabetes by diet and the lowest possible dose of medication. If he had caught his condition in time, he says that he might have been able to control it without medication altogether.
Noakes is involved in the same line of research as Virta, through the Noakes Foundation. He founded it expressly to support independent research into the global epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The two conditions are so co-existent hat doctors now refer to them as diabesity.
Virta Health holds out that promise for type 2 diabetics, once they get their diet right.
Inkinen has mobilised the top medical and published scientific ‘gurus’ in the field of low-carb, high-fat diets to treat and prevent disease. He has added technology advances that combine data science and machine learning.
The rest is Virta’s exciting, disruptive history. It’s why Inkinen’s connection with Phinney and Volek is a union made in research heaven.
Hallberg says that Virta Health works because it draws on decades of research and drives two major innovations. Firstly, it attacks type 2 diabetes at source to repair metabolic health. Type 2 diabetes is, after all, a condition of impaired glucose metabolism.
Secondly, Virta’s healing weapons focus on carbohydrate intake and nutritional ketosis.
Virta’s mix of medicine, science and technology is part of its healing magic. It enables Virta physicians and health coaches to deliver continuous, on-demand, highly individualised care. It considers each individual’s ‘unique biochemistry, medications, and life circumstances’.
Thus, Virta offers personalised medicine that is one of the biggest trends in modern medicine. It is also essential for safe and sustainable reversal of type 2 diabetes. And its technology experts can instantly translate the research into a scalable and sustainable patient experience, says Hallberg.
‘Being able to scale to achieve the mission is critical,’ she says.
Where to next for Virta Health and those who have diabetes? As it is a research-based company, it will continue to contribute the body of research for type 2 diabetes, Hallberg says.
Virta’s future looks bright thanks to its solid foundation. That foundation is based on the ancient Ayurvedic proverb: ‘When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need.’
That message beats at the heart of Virta’s mission.