By Marika Sboros
For the future of diabetes treatment, look no further than the US start-up Virta Health and its visionary founder and CEO 41-year-old Finn Sami Inkinen. Virta is an online specialty medical clinic with an innovative app for type 2 diabetics. It is on track to achieve its mission: sustainable diabetes remission without drugs or surgery.
Those behind it believe that it is the closest that modern medicine comes to a ‘cure’ for the global epidemic.
Inkinen is a data-driven technology entrepreneur and multi-millionaire philanthropist. His Virta co-founders are the ‘fathers’ of ketogenic diets: Prof Stephen Phinney and Prof Jeff Volek, aka the ‘kings of ketosis’.
Virta’s medical director is Dr Sarah Hallberg, who is on the Aspen Institute’s list of Health Innovators Fellowship for 2017.
Inkinen‘s stated mission is to reverse diabetes in 100 million people by 2025. That can seem daunting given that more than 420 million people currently live with diabetes globally. As of July 18, 2017, 98% of Americans have access to a 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 includes all chronic nutrition-related diseases of lifestyle.
Best start-up 2017
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. While Inkinen, Volek and Phinney have designed Virta Health specifically to reverse type 2 diabetes without risks, high costs, and side effects of medication or surgery.
That highlights what Inkinen says is the real key to Virta’s successful treatment model: the doctors and scientists he has gathered together to help patients fight diabetes. Virta’s business model puts these doctors and scientists ‘in patients’ pockets through smartphones’, he says. This means that patients with diabetes or other health problem are ‘never alone in their journey to reverse their condition’.
Virta Health‘s treatment method is based on evidence for safety, sustainability and accessibility, Inkinen says. The company is about to publish research on its method for type 2 diabetes 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.
Yet ketogenic diets are still controversial, despite significant and growing anecdotal evidence of benefit. That’s mostly because of the state of ketosis that these diets produce. Many doctors and dietitians still confuse ketosis, a normal bodily state, with ketoacidosis, a potentially fatal condition seen mostly in type 1 diabetics.
They are also largely pessimists based on their current understanding of the evidence. They tell patients that type 2 diabetes is necessarily chronic and progressive. And they say that it ups their risk of heart attack, kidney failure and limb loss (which is true). They also tell patients that they will have to take drugs for a lifetime to control their condition.
Thus, these doctors and dietitians are led by 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
Virta doctors and scientists are much more optimistic and generating interest worldwide. That’s largely the result of Inkinen background that includes a personal connection to type 2 diabetes.
Becoming a ‘thrillionaire’
He 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’.
Forbes named Ikinen one of its top ‘Thrillionnaires’ because of his penchant for extreme exploits at work and at play.
In 2012, at the peak of physical fitness, Inkinen was stunned to notice something worrying about his blood sugar levels. He realised he had all the symptoms of prediabetes. In retrospect, Inkinen made a brave move. He started reading the research and opted for dietary change instead of conventional drugs as first resort.
He switched to a low-carbohydrate, high-healthy-fat (LCHF) diet. As the Fortune article notes, ‘as his blood sugar levels dropped, his excitement spiked’. The rest is Virta’s amazing history.
Click here to read: Who gets type 2 diabetes? Addicts and athletes!
His route to Virta has been circuitous. Inkinen calls himself an ‘incurable data geek’. He has a Masters degree in engineering (a physics major). He did a brief stint at a nuclear power plant as a radiochemist before leaving the world of radioactive water samples.
Profit through purpose and magic
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 $3.88 million on the IPO (initial public offering) alone.
Inkinen thinks nothing of working 90-hour weeks as long as he loves what he is doing. His life mantra refers: ‘When profits fuel purpose, magic happens’. He is, therefore, purposefully making magic with Virta Health.
Inkinen doesn’t believe in resting on laurels. In August 2014, he and wife Meredith Loring became the fastest pair ever to row across the Atlantic Ocean. with zero rowing experience, they finished the race from California to Hawaii in 45 days.
They did it not 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, refined carbohydrates.
They were determined to practise what they were preaching. Therefore, they used foods rich in fat, not carbs, for their dietary fuel throughout their journey. They were also careful to have no junk food on board whatsoever.
The ‘Fat Chance Row’
The couple called their journey the Fat Chance Row. It is an amazing achievement but then it’s in Inkinen’s DNA to push boundaries and challenge dogma.
And when Inkinen looked for partners to start Virta, Phinney was an obvious choice.
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 also coined the term ‘nutritional ketosis’ years ago to distinguish it from ketoacidosis.
Volek is Phinney’s warrior partner on the path to change conventional dietary advice for optimum health and to treat or prevent nutrition-related disease. 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 prefer alternative approaches to drugs to treat or prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle. Among these are obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
Mix of medicine, magic, science and tech
Still, some doctors insist that diabetes is not reversible. However, that’s really just semantics and Inkinen’s connection with Phinney and Volek is clearly 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 its source to repair metabolic health. Type 2 diabetes is, after all, a condition of impaired glucose metabolism, she says.
Secondly, Virta’s healing weapons focus on carbohydrate intake and nutritional ketosis.
Virta’s mix of medicine, science and technology is at the heart of Inkinen’s vision, Hallberg says. 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 part of its magic and also one of the biggest trends in modern medicine. The company’s 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 with diabetes? As it is a research-based company, it will continue to contribute to the body of research for type 2 diabetes, Hallberg says.
Virta’s future looks bright thanks to a solid foundation based on the ancient Ayurvedic proverb: ‘When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need.’
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