Chief Executive Lisa Lavin is the only officer listed on the website of Anser Innovation, a startup company based in Burnsville, although a half-dozen additional members of its board are listed right with her.
It's not rare for a young company to recruit a board, in part because board members do not need to be paid in cash. What is not that common, though, is to have directors of the stature of former UnitedHealth Group executive Jeannine Rivet, a well-known figure in her industry.
As to why Rivet might want to join a tiny company just launching a product to help seniors take their medications, the most interesting take comes from Lavin: "Good leadership is compounding."
It's an interesting idea well worth considering — and for big companies, too. It means candidates find good leaders involved already, making it easier for someone like Rivet to decide to come aboard. Her involvement, in turn, can attract others.
Lavin and Rivet were not even acquaintances, by the way. The story begins when Lavin attended an event held by PNC Bank where Rivet was the featured speaker, and approached her after the talk.
Rivet had retired from UnitedHealth Group as an executive vice president in summer 2018, the month she turned 70 and the 50th anniversary of starting work in health care. She had no shortage of things to do, though, having been active as a director for nonprofits as well as for-profit companies. But in that first conversation with Lavin she heard just enough to say she would consider it.
Anser Innovation goes back to 2011, with its health care business Omcare just getting going. Its first business is called PetChatz, which drew some media attention.
PetChatz provides a way for pet owners to check in on their critters during the day, sort of a Skype or FaceTime to stay in touch with Fido. The current generation has a little button enabling the pet to tap with a paw and send a message for the owner to call back.
With the company now focusing on health care, Lavin is looking for a buyer for the PetChatz business. She was looking forward, even early on, suggesting that this kind of convenient, two-way video communication technology might be useful in helping take care of people doing their best to live independently.
That's a problem that Jeannine Rivet has given a lot of thought in her 50 years in health care. One thing she knew is that older people often go without the required dosage of prescribed medications.
It's easy to understand why there are failures with what's called medication adherence. Seniors could be asked to take a growing handful of different pills as they grew older, even as instructions from doctors are harder to hear, pill bottle labels are harder to read and it's just not as easy to keep track of things.
Seniors forget to take their pills or get confused and take too many. Money to pay for them can be a worry, too, one reason they decide they might not really need their prescribed drugs after all.
Such a widespread problem has attracted entrepreneurs, trying electronic "smart" pillboxes and other approaches. One question to answer for Rivet was whether Lavin and Anser could really help solve this problem with Omcare's version of a supersized pillbox, dispensing the meds even as a voice chat with a family member or health care staffer is underway.
Rivet checked in with a couple of current Anser Innovation directors including David McLean, a former UnitedHealth colleague who also had experience as an entrepreneur. She also trusted the judgment of Cathy Connett, CEO and managing partner of the Sofia Fund, who knew the Omcare story well and was encouraging.
"What was happening was I was getting excited," Rivet said. "Because I always said, I don't know about doing a startup. But the more I was thinking about it, the more I was thinking it might be fun to be at the beginning phases, to think through who might be the customers and who might be the potential purchasers."
First pilot program
Health care, of course, is a complicated business. The people paying the bills are usually not the people being served.
Lavin plans to sell only a device, not a service. The buyers might be a health care delivery company, pharmacy company or even a payor, as health insurers are called.
Omcare is about to launch its first pilot program, together with nonprofit senior housing provider Ecumen and Thrifty White, the regional pharmacy company based in Plymouth.
Ecumen remains on the lookout for new ideas, said Brett Anderson, Ecumen's vice president of health and clinical services. His plan is to start with about 20 households in one of Ecumen's assisted-living communities.
Success would mean first that the people served were happy with the experience and had been completely consistent in taking their medications. Anderson hopes the Ecumen care team finds this new tool useful, too.
As for cost, Anderson explained, better drug adherence leads to living healthier and longer, with fewer trips to the clinic, emergency room or hospital.
Although Rivet has only just become involved, she suspects one of the challenges in the coming year is how to manage growth, as Omcare moves past the pilot program and into a full launch. Even a version for consumers seems promising, pitched at middle-aged adults hoping to keep their parents healthy.
"Had this been available I would've bought it for my parents," Rivet said. "And paid for the service. It's the visual that's important, of seeing the person's face and seeing the pills."
Lavin had a clear idea of how Rivet could help the moment she decided to try to recruit her, in particular knowing that she needed help to make her way among health care plans and providers, senior living providers, pharmacy benefit managers and pharmacies.
Lavin said her company would soon announce an additional board member — and she was willing to give herself a little credit as a recruiter.
"I was brave enough to approach Jeannine Rivet and say 'I want to talk to you about joining our board,' " she said.