An interview with Heal's Nick Desai: why he stepped down as CEO and what he plans to do next

Steven Loeb · March 9, 2021 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/51ef
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Heal, which combines in-home health, telemedicine and remote monitoring, had raised over $160M

Last week, it was announced that Nick Desai, co-founder and CEO of Heal, a company that combines in-home health visits, telemedicine and remote patient monitoring, was stepping down. The original announcement, however, contained no words from Desai himself about why he made this decision.

Now, Desai has put out a statement explaining what was behind his decision to give up the role he has held for the last six year; namely, there are big challenges left to tackle. 

"It's with great sense of appreciation and high hopes for the future that I personally announce I've stepped down as CEO of Heal. My interest remains in the early stages of entrepreneurial innovation and as I catch my breath from Heal, I'm looking at that scale of challenges in healthcare and exploring who's going to create the healthcare solution that is used not by 100,000 or one million, but rather 100 million Americans, equally, to needful patients around the world," he said.

Desai also made note of a recent report which said that 85 percent of telehealth users come from households with an income over $150,000, "meaning much work remains in creating truly accessible, effective solutions that are equally and easily available to those who need it most."

"As of now, I am an entrepreneur again, and this will be a new focus for me, while I still remain supportive of all Heal has and will continue to do. I am Incredibly proud of what my wife, Renee, and I built at Heal." 

Founded in in 2014 by Desai and Dr. Renee Dua, his wife and the company's Chief Medical Officer, Heal started out by allowing patients to schedule house calls with their doctor, before launching its telemedicine service in 2019 to supplement the house calls and allow for more interactions. The company also offers a remote patient monitoring service called Heal Hub, a chronic vital sign monitoring technology, which will report things like blood pressure or blood sugar to the doctor in real-time.

The company, which has served over 250,000 patient visits to date, had raised over $160 million, including a $100 million investment from Humana in July 2020. Other investors include former Qualcomm CEO and Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs (who is Heal's Chairman of the Board), IRA Capital, Fidelity ContraFund, Jim BreyerLionel Richie, former Florida  Governor Jeb Bush and others.  

I spoke to Nick Desai about why this was the right time for him to step down from Heal, how the company responded to COVID, and what he plans to do next. 

VatorNews: Why did you decide that now was the right time to step down from your role as CEO? 

Nick Desai: It's always a tough decision after building a company from the ground up and the six years of hard work and sweat and just tenacity and passion we put into this. But Heal’s also in a really great place. You know, one of the key milestones was getting the funding from Humana that we announced last Fall, the $100 million Series D. And, with that in place, and with there being a very clear strategy for the company and a great team in place, I just wanted to catch my breath a little bit.

I was just thinking yesterday that it was about six years ago today that I was driving around with my wife, and we would get the appointments booked in the very first version of the Heal app and she was the doctor that I would take to the house and she would go do the house calls; now we're in 11 states and available to 150 million Americans and 20 insurance plans and have 70 corporate customers. It's been a lot, so I'm excited to have taken a step back and I know the company is in very good hands and able to execute on the strategy they're building and the foundation that I built for them.  

VN: Will you still be involved in Heal in any way going forward? Will you still have a presence there?

ND: My presence I’m a very passionate founder. I'm always available for anyone on the team and the leadership and the customers, whatever, for any kind of guidance, advice and strategic insights. Other than that, I'm rooting hard from the sidelines as a proud and passionate founder of the people we brought there and the things we accomplished but, most importantly, the patients we serve.

We served a quarter million people with house calls and telehealth and all the markets and all the data and cost savings and all this stuff, but I had in my desk at Heal 24 or 25 letters and emails and postcards from people who are literally like, ‘You saved my father's life,’ or ‘You saved my son’s life,’ or ‘You saved my daughter's life.’ You know, that kind of thing, it's hard to put a price tag on that. It's what makes me most proud that I was able to be there to help people in their time of need and to create something that provides peace of mind and care when people need it most to the people who need it most. So, I feel very, very good about that.

My role going forward is I'm catching my breath at the moment, frankly. I'm not saying this to show off, because I think every entrepreneur has this, but over the last five years I've probably worked six out of seven days a week, 45 weeks a year, so I took one day off a week and a lot of those days I was flying or whatever so, honestly, I'm just taking a little bit of a breather.

VN: How much, if any, did COVID have to do with this decision? People are so much more stressed out and you have kids and they're probably at home, so how did that factor into this? Was it that additional stress of the last year where you finally said, “I need a little bit of break from this”?

ND: You know, I wouldn't say COVID had anything to do with it, interestingly. COVID is a global tragedy, it’s an American tragedy, of unequal proportion. More people died from COVID now than any World War we've ever fought and in the span of just about a year. But, for Heal, and for the health call and telehealth space, it's in a way been an accelerant. We’re very, very, very blessed; we live near the beach in Santa Monica, California, our three kids are young, so, yeah, they would would be in first grade or kindergarten in a classroom, but they're still home a lot and I haven’t had to travel for work so, in some ways, our family has come closer together. So, I don't think it really did have an impact. 

I just think that we got to a point where there's a very clearly defined, very focused, strategy. There is a good team of people in place, there's a big chunk of funding in place, a lot of great innovations and I can start thinking about being an entrepreneur again. As a company grows, you also get to a point where much more of a CEO's time is boards and reporting and metrics and HR and all these different things, not creating brand new things, so I'm excited to create brand new things again and to take a step back and say, “What's next?” 

VN: Why was Scott Vertrees the right choice to take over as CEO? What was his involvement with Heal prior to this?

ND: He was a consultant to Heal and helped in some areas and did some consulting work but, honestly, we had talked to a few people and he was the one that resonated the most with the board, mostly because his background is in scaling something operationally, whereas my background was in creating brand new things. Heal is much more in an execution mode and than a creation mode now. 

VN: Speaking of being in creation mode, and we were already talking about COVID, I'm really interested to hear how Heal responded to the pandemic over the last 12 months, as telemedicine exploded and in-person house calls became more difficult. 

ND: I distinctly remember it was just after Christmas 2019, I think the 30th of December, if I remember correctly, and we were in Mammoth with my wife and kids. My wife was watching the TV after a day of skiing and they were talking about this virus in China, and she's like, ‘This thing is coming here and we’ve got to gear up and get ready.’ So, we accelerated the launch of our telehealth platform, which is the easiest to use: it's one touch, no download, works on any device for video telehealth. We launched that in early March, or just about a year ago. Renee and I spent a lot of time on the telehealth platform and a lot of time on getting doctors who had been doing house calls comfortable with doing telehealth, but still capturing the same level of specificity when we saw a patient when it comes to social determinants of health, when it comes to care gaps, fall risks, things like that. 

It was interesting coming at telehealth from the DNA of a house call company because our doctors were used to spending 45 minutes to an hour with a patient, and now they're on video, but they have the background to be able to ask the questions so that our telehealth was much more a primary care experience than the traditional transactional triage of just, ‘Hey, what's hurting, here's a pill, go see a doctor.’ That kind of thing. So, we did that and we also got them personal protective equipment; if you remember back a year ago, PPE was hard to get. It was like this whole GOOP-like industry where you had to find guys on the street corner going, ‘I got masks!’ Obviously there's much more availability now and there’s a vaccine, but there was so much fear back then. It was like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to sanitize your groceries and take your shoes off outside of the house and wash your hands.’ I was washing my hands so much my skin was cracking. A lot of that is still very good science but now we know that the contact is much more human-to-human. If you wear masks, if you stay socially distant, if you even double mask, as a lot of people are saying now, it becomes a habit. Now all the precautions I take are just habit and I've always been a bit of a germaphobe so I like the fact that people wear masks most of the time. I've always used my shirt sleeve or a paper napkin to open doorknobs or press elevator buttons. 

The company adapted very well and Renee, my wife who's our Chief Medical Officer, led the effort to move the company to a completely virtual workforce so nobody came into the office so everyone was safe. She moved into a role of just being COVID Informer in Chief where she put out updates and and all that every day, then a couple times a week, and then weekly. My focus was, ‘Hey we now have this omni-modal care business: we have remote monitoring for chronic disease patients, we have one touch telehealth, we have house calls that we started resuming by the summer of last year.’ So, the business grew nicely and we were able to serve more patients in more ways than ever before. 

VN: What kind of growth and increase in engagement did you see? Many telehealth companies saw so much growth that they had to raise money just to handle the additional volume and bring on more providers to reach all those patients. Is that what Heal also saw? 

ND: I don't like attributing any growth to something that’s killed half a million people. Also, I'm not CEO of the company anymore so I don't want to comment on specific numbers, plus we're a privately held company, but I will say we were on Deloitte’s Fast 500, which is a list of 500 fastest growing tech companies in North America; we were number 114 on the list in 2020 based on our previous three years of audited financials. So, we're a fast growing company and we handled the growth very well.

And, yeah, providers are in short supply. What COVID has taught us is that the real heroes in our society don't wear capes but they do wear coats and scrubs. They’re doctors and nurses and health care providers who have put themselves on the line, many of whom have lost their lives, to help people. Many of those dedicated providers work for us at Heal and we're very, very proud of them and the commitment they showed to the patients.

VN: Where would you like to see the incoming CEO take the company going forward? What is your vision for where the company should go next?

ND: I think that Heal is on a trajectory where we're building a nice business for seniors and providing them the kind of care that they need and doing that with all the technologies that Renee and I created. We combined house calls, telemedicine and remote monitoring to help seniors achieve better outcomes and lower costs and we did that with many of our insurance partners, WellCare and the Blues plans and Atena and Medicare. We want to scale the business to operational excellence, to scale 5x or 10x to become a dominant force for house call-based care for seniors.

VN: What’s next for you? From your statement sounds like you’ll still be involved in the telehealth space, making it more equitable and accessible.  

ND: Just to be clear, if that statement sounds like I'm going to be involved in the telehealth business, I don't know what I’m going to be doing. 

As I take a step back from Heal, and obviously I’m only hours into that, what I'm looking at now, and what I'm thinking about and I find fascinating and challenging is when we talk about the adoption of services like Uber or Netflix or GrubHub/Seamless, we're talking about tens of millions, hundreds of millions, of people. These are de facto services that are a part of American life. But when we're talking about health, and I'm not just talking about Heal but other companies in the telehealth space and the house call space, or even clinic-based companies like One Medical, any of these companies, you’re talking about companies that touch thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of lives.

I read a stat test yesterday that 85 percent of people who used telehealth in 2020 have a household income of $150,000 or more. We're talking about affluent, educated people who are tech savvy and aware. That's a good first step but who’s going to build the healthcare app, who's gonna build the healthcare service, that becomes a platform that 100 million Americans use? That is as widely used as Netflix or Uber or Amazon or GrubHub or any of these kinds of services that have made our life better? Try imagining getting through this pandemic without GrubHub and food delivery; restaurants, as hard a time as they’re having now, they would have gone completely out of business. The first two months after COVID started, Renee and I were cooking at home every day, and we were ready to kill ourselves. We were like, ‘We need some variety!’

So, that's an interesting challenge and what that shape that takes, what I might do in it, what other people might do in it, I don't know, but my head is sort of circling around these data points and thinking about why there aren't health care services where there is one product, one app, one platform, that 100 million or 50 million people use or one in four Americans use. Why is it so segmented? Why are we talking about such small groups in such a large country? That's a problem space I find really interesting and challenging but, honestly, I have to catch my breath, I have to do research. I sit with my sketchpad and my colored pens, as I like to say, and do research and noodle ideas and talk to people and think and see what happens.

One of my one of my longtime teammates at Heal, our Chief Product Officer, said to me, ‘The world is your oyster,’ and I don't rush into anything. I want to take my time but take it to the next level. If I do something else in health care, it's going to be 10x the size, or 100x the size, and solve the chasm of equality of access, which is huge. The people who need health care innovation the most are the least likely to get it and that’s a societal problem. We can't talk about equality of opportunity, we can't talk about equality in our society, gender equality, ethnic equality for underprivileged and underrepresented minorities, we can't talk about those things without talking about health care inequality. We know this pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color and people with lower incomes. We know that. We can't solve equality unless we solve healthcare quality because, fundamentally, in America, underprivileged people have a shorter life expectancy than those otherwise. So, how can you be equal when you don't can't even live long as long?  

VN: Is there anything else I should know?

ND: The closing statement is, we set out to change an industry and, in the process, we created an industry. When we started people were like, ‘House calls are never going to work,’ and now it's considered best practice. Price transparency went from not being a thing in healthcare to everyone having to have it. The things we created are now de facto standards and whether we're the one offering it, or somebody else is, these are innovations that are making healthcare easier for everyday Americans and I'm really proud of that and the team I worked with to do that.

Most importantly, my partner in life and my partner at Heal, my wife and my co-founder, Renee and I just are really proud of the things we did and of all the investors and partners we brought to the table and, as I said, the people we got to serve with great healthcare.

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Nick Desai

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Co-Founder/CEO of Heal. Serial Entrepreneur, Jubilant Father of Three and Food Lover.