Entrepreneur of the Week: Dirk Soenksen, Ceresti Health
Earlier this month, ten caregiving health tech finalists competed in AARP’s Innovation@50+ LivePitch event in Mountain View, CA. (Click here for our wrap of the event). The Longevity Network is delighted to be featuring one finalist per week in our Entrepreneur of the Week segment for the next ten weeks.
This week we feature Ceresti Health. They offer a personalized digital health program aimed at the millions of unpaid family caregivers of someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The proprietary software comes with a tablet that serves as the gateway for education, support, care plans and coaching to improve care and reduce healthcare costs of this population.
We spoke with Dirk Soenksen, co-founder and CEO, about the opportunities he sees in the 50+ market.
Longevity Network: What does Ceresti, the company, do?
Dirk Soenksen: Ceresti is focused on reducing healthcare costs and improving care for the most expensive patients: those unable to self-manage their chronic conditions. Our digital health programs empower family caregivers to improve patient health.
Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke or a traumatic brain injury are unable to follow instructions or communicate symptoms, including pain. When these patients also have chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, their inability to self-manage increases costs for payers and magnifies care challenges for inexperienced and stressed caregivers.
LN: Can you tell us about your product and how it works?
DS: Our proprietary caregiver-centric 12-week program is delivered as a technology-enabled service. We provide the unpaid family caregiver with a dedicated tablet to be used in their home for the duration of our program. We deliver a highly personalized program that includes education, care plans, support and coaching. For example, a caregiver might watch a video about the signs and symptoms of a urinary tract infection, or learn how to help someone with dementia brush their teeth, or enter a blood pressure reading. Caregivers acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence required for their specific situation.
LN: What opportunity did you see that you wanted to address with the creation of your product?
DS: Patients who are unable to self-manage their chronic conditions incur healthcare costs that are significantly higher per year than patients able to self-manage. Medicare spends more than $60 billion every year in incremental costs for 5.5 million U.S. patients who are unable to self-manage. The largest five Medicare Advantage plans spend an additional $14 billion every year on these patients, above and beyond what they spend for patients who are able to self-manage.
Peer reviewed studies show that engaging unpaid family caregivers improves care and reduces costs. Ceresti is the first company to integrate proven approaches for managing chronic conditions with best practices for Alzheimer’s care into a caregiver-centric personalized program.
We believe that our digital health programs can reduce incremental healthcare costs by 50% and save each of the largest five Medicare Advantage Plans more than $1 billion annually.
By creating a business that aligns the economic needs of payers with the medical and psychosocial needs of patients and their caregivers, we can dramatically improve families’ experience of living with Alzheimer’s—which is what we set out to do when we founded Ceresti.
LN: Who are your primary users? How will your product benefit the 50+ population?
DS: Our platform and in particular our dedicated tablets have been optimized for use by family caregivers, typically a spouse of the person unable to self-manage, or a baby-boomer child. We also provide family members and friends access to our smartphone App to allow them to share pictures and send messages to the tablet.
An estimated 15 million Americans currently provide unpaid care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Almost 70% of these family caregivers are 50+. These numbers are expected to triple in the next 30 to 40 years.
Our programs will provide much-needed knowledge, skills, confidence and support to family caregivers as they struggle with caring for spouses or parents who are unable to self-manage their chronic conditions.
LN: How did you assemble your team?
DS: The three co-founders of Ceresti all worked together at a prior healthcare company (Aperio) also founded by me. Between the three co-founders, we cover strategy, vision, clinical, content, technology and scalability. We added a highly talented individual with a deep understanding of managed care to our leadership team. We also benefitted greatly from the insights and suggestions of a diverse group of advisors.
LN: How has what happened with your company differed from what you envisioned would happen?
DS: Our prior experience of starting a company in the garage, raising venture capital, building a team, scaling operations and orchestrating a successful exit has prepared us well.
When we started Ceresti we recognized that we were likely the first ones to tackle the complex challenge of building a payer-focused business capable of improving care for millions living with Alzheimer’s Disease. We expected that some of our ideas would fail along the way and provide an opportunity for us to learn and pivot. That has happened a few times already. For example, we had truly spectacular results engaging patients living with dementia in a memory care facility with our digital psychosocial therapies. When we took these therapies into the home we had mixed results, which allowed us to understand the impact and importance of the family caregiver on the quality of patient care. We quickly recognized that in order for us to be successful in the home, the family caregiver has to be central to our mission of improving patient care.
LN: What do you wish you had known before developing your product?
DS: It would have been wonderful if many of the insights we have made to date had been known to us. We could have saved significant time and money. However, the things we learned—such as the importance of the family caregiver in the home, as described above—were either unknowable or unknown by our team and by the significant group of advisors we assembled to help us.
LN: What most excites you about the aging/health technology market?
DS: In the U.S., 10,000 people turn 65 every day. The demographics of the U.S. population highlight that the aging/health technology market represents a large and growing business opportunity. Digital health has yet to deliver on its promise, but I’m confident that it can and will. We believe that our approach of developing a holistic solution that includes a large and near-term economic benefit has the potential to create significant value for payers, while addressing the care needs of some of the most challenging patients.
LN: What is your best piece of advice for startups who want to include or target the aging / tech market?
DS: If your goal is to build a large digital health business, make sure that your product or service is capable of achieving a tangible economic benefit for someone who is willing and able to pay. Selling directly to consumers is expensive and inefficient.
LN: Where do you see your company five years from now?
DS: We expect that Ceresti will offer the leading solution deployed by payers and at-risk providers to reduce costs and improve care for patients unable to self-manage. We expect that caregivers and families will benefit greatly from our program and seek out payers and providers who are prepared to underwrite our program as part of their suite of chronic care management tools.
LN: What health or wellness technology do you hope exists by the time you retire?
DS: I’m intrigued by the potential of non-human avatars to cost-effectively personalize caregiver or patient engagement in digital health. The current state of avatar technology isn’t quite where it needs to be, but this seems like something that could really be “game-changing” as an enhancement to a solution with a human touch.
LN: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
DS: In our view, personalization is the key to engagement, and engagement is the key to successful outcomes. Ceresti has developed a proprietary “personalization engine” that operates “under the hood” of all of our digital health programs and adaptively and continually personalizes our programs to maximize engagement. Every caregiver/patient dyad receives a unique program to address their specific and personal needs. Our long-term differentiator will be the ability to achieve unprecedented personalization, using technology, at scale.
About the Author
Prior to co-founding Ceresti, Mr. Soenksen was founder and CEO of venture-backed Aperio. He started Aperio in his garage in 1999 and built a winning team that established Aperio as the recognized global leader in digital pathology. Aperio was acquired by Danaher in October 2012.
In 2006, Mr. Soenksen founded the Digital Pathology Association (DPA), a non-profit organization comprising major vendors and leading pathologists, with the goal of establishing best practices and increasing awareness of digital pathology. Dirk served as President of the DPA from its inception until 2012, and as a board member of the DPA through the end of 2014.
He has an undergraduate degree in Chemistry from Bowdoin College, and a graduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He also earned his MBA from Pepperdine University.