By Nancy Kirsch
As medical students at The Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University, Rajiv Kumar and Brad Weinberg launched Shape Up RI in 2005; over time, it led to the development of a separate for-profit company called ShapeUp, which uses the power of social networking and gaming to encourage individuals to adopt healthier nutrition, exercise and general wellness habits. Kumar and Weinberg, who both graduated from medical school, sold ShapeUp to Virgin Pulse in February 2016. Dr. Kumar talked with Providence Business News about the decision to sell ShapeUp to Virgin Pulse, a new affiliation between Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, and his role with Virgin Pulse, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
PBN: Tell us about the deal that led to Virgin Pulse purchasing ShapeUp and what was your motivation to sell the company?
KUMAR: When Virgin Pulse approached me to discuss a potential sale of ShapeUp, I was intrigued. Virgin Pulse and ShapeUp had long been top players in the employee well-being and engagement space, and I had always been impressed with Virgin Pulse’s technology and innovation. Combining forces represented a unique opportunity to reach more people around the world. We operate in a crowded and fragmented space; this business combination has now made us the largest employee well-being software provider in the world by both revenue and clients. Also, we no longer have to compete against each other in the marketplace, which is a huge plus!
PBN: What are your responsibilities as president and chief medical officer of Virgin Pulse?
KUMAR: In my new role, my primary responsibility is to head up the Virgin Pulse Institute, which is dedicated to advancing research, analytics and best practices in the workplace well-being and engagement industry. There are three arms of the Virgin Pulse Institute: a world-class analytics team that is researching the relationship between individual health outcomes, like weight loss and improved sleep, and business outcomes, like productivity and profitability; our Science Advisory Board, which is comprised of international scholars and researchers in the fields of behavior change and health; and the Global Wellbeing Alliance, a consortium of forward-thinking employers from around the world who care about the well-being of their employees. Together, these three branches of the Institute will help move our industry forward in an evidence-based way. I also remain heavily involved in sales, marketing and client relations.
PBN: Why was BCBSRI the first statewide insurer to execute such a large contract with Virgin Pulse, and do you anticipate replicating this contract with other insurance companies in Rhode Island or elsewhere?
KUMAR: Ever since 2005, when I founded the nonprofit entity, Shape Up RI, it’s been clear to me that Rhode Island businesses have been very eager to adopt employee well-being programs. I’ve worked with employers around the world, and I can honestly say that Rhode Island employers have been ahead of the curve in many ways. BCBSRI, too, is pursuing innovation at every level of the organization. I believe this partnership is their way of not only responding to strong employer demand for well-being programs, but also to pursue their mission of promoting a healthier Rhode Island. As the state’s largest insurer, they’re in a powerful position to make a lasting impact on the health of our state through the introduction of the Virgin Pulse platform. We do believe that other insurers in other states will be quick to follow their lead.
PBN: Explain the essential terms of the contract with BCBSRI; will every individual insured by BCBSRI – whether through an employer, the Health Exchange or individually – have access to the Virgin Pulse platform?
KUMAR: Those who are insured through BCBSRI will have varying degrees of access to the Virgin Pulse platform and programs. We will deploy resources in a way that best serves the mission of BCBSRI to offer the most comprehensive, cutting-edge and empowering well-being tools to their members. We’re excited to see these programs influence not just individuals, but families that are working together to create strong, healthy habits in their daily lives.
PBN: Who is assuming the costs of sharing this platform with 450,000 insureds and how does Virgin Pulse anticipate, if at all, helping BCBSRI evaluate the platform’s efficacy and value?
KUMAR: The Virgin Pulse Institute will support BCBSRI in its efforts to quantify the impact that our product has on the health and lives of those who engage with it. We expect to leverage large quantities of data from health assessments, wearable devices and self-tracking on our platform to demonstrate how we are improving key metrics around personal and population health and well-being.