Lessons from a Thriving Power Couple, with Sloan Saunders and Dr. Katherine Saunders of Intellihealth
From the day I decided to specialize in obesity medicine, I’ve been passionate about my mission. When Sloan became more passionate than I was about the massive supply-demand mismatch associated with my profession, I took notice and we decided to team up with Dr. Aronne to start Intellihealth.
As a part of our series about lessons from Thriving Power Couples, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sloan Saunders and Dr. Katherine Saunders Co-founder and CEO, Intellihealth.
Sloan Saunders is an entrepreneur with 15 years of banking, private equity and venture capital experience. He co-founded Intellihealth in 2017 together with leading obesity medicine specialists Dr. Katherine Saunders (his wife) and Dr. Louis Aronne, with the mission to redefine the perception of obesity as a medical disease and expand access to care with a scalable treatment solution that helps more people live longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Katherine Saunders, MD, DABOM, Co-founder and Senior Medical Officer, Intellihealth
Dr. Katherine Saunders specializes in the care of patients with obesity and weight-related medical complications. She is an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. As a senior medical officer at Intellihealth, she helps ensure that the obesity treatment delivered via the company’s platform adheres to the highest standards of evidence-based medicine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you two to your respective career paths?
After receiving minimal education on obesity during my medical training, I was completely unprepared to address the underlying cause of my patients’ myriad health problems — their excess weight. My obesity medicine fellowship (one of the first in the country and the first at Weill Cornell) with Dr. Louis Aronne at Weill Cornell’s Comprehensive Weight Control Center was the first time I actually witnessed people lose weight and keep it off. Instead of prescribing multiple medications for high blood pressure, joint pain and over 200 other conditions associated with weight, I finally had the tools to address their weight appropriately and successfully.
At the same time, Sloan was gravitating towards more entrepreneurial pursuits. With his finance background and his passion for solving problems, he designed a business plan to digitize what we do in addressing obesity at scale. At the beginning, he even took a crack at an algorithm to mimic our medical decision-making.
In 2019, we teamed up with Dr. Aronne, who pioneered an effective medical model for obesity treatment over the course of his career and helped develop the field of obesity medicine. Our company, Intellihealth, created its first software platform, Evolve, to democratize access to this type of effective obesity treatment through a comprehensive, individualized approach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you two got married?
Marriage is one of the ultimate forms of partnership. Becoming startup co-founders on top of that while raising three young children during a pandemic really heightens the challenges. Some warned us about the pitfalls of working with your significant other but it has actually strengthened our relationship and allowed us to see one another in a different light. Combining our complementary expertise to grow Intellihealth has been an exciting journey.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the beginning of the pandemic, when back-to-back Zoom meetings were new to everyone, we found ourselves displaced from our separate offices, working under the same roof. We took several Zoom meetings, including many investor pitches, sitting side by side in front of the same camera, strategically hitting mute to hide our babies’ cries. It took us way too long to realize that we appeared exponentially more professional on separate screens and as far away from screaming children as possible.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
While the weight loss space is very saturated, less than 2% of people with obesity receive treatment for the disease of obesity according to guidelines. This is compared to 86% for a disease like type 2 diabetes. When you combine the serious health risks and costs associated with obesity with how widespread it is (74% of the U.S. population is overweight or has obesity), there is a real urgency to develop a solution. With Intellihealth, we have combined advanced technology with a proven medical model to create a solution scaled to the magnitude of this epidemic. The access to quality clinical care provided by our platform will allow millions of people who have repeatedly failed commercial weight loss programs to lose two to three times more weight and, more importantly, sustain their weight loss long term.
It has been so gratifying to see the impact of our progress on individual people. A few months ago, one of my patients arrived at her initial visit feeling like a “loser” because she had regained most of her weight since bariatric surgery. She was embarrassed and blamed herself. She described a perceived lack of willpower and repeated “failures.” She was skeptical because nothing had ever worked in a sustainable way — not even bariatric surgery. Over the course of our visit and her first few months using Evolve, she learned about the physiology of weight regulation, about how our bodies have evolved to not starve through anti-starvation defense mechanisms that fight our best weight loss attempts every single time. She learned that excess weight literally leads to inflammation in the hypothalamus, which results in increased hunger and more weight gain. She learned that her inability to sustain weight loss was not her fault. Obesity is a disease that shouldn’t be viewed as a personal failure. The Intellihealth approach goes beyond diet and exercise to treat the disease with a medical model similar to the model used to treat other diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This is the standard of care. She now has hope and support, two concepts that had always been antithetical to her weight loss attempts. Today she is well on her way to significant weight loss — without fad diets, cleanses or starving herself.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Healthcare providers don’t have time for anything cumbersome and individuals who have overweight or obesity have many competing priorities. Thus, our solution needs to be as easy and seamless as possible for everyone involved. We’re currently integrating the Intellihealth software platform, Evolve, into electronic health records to streamline healthcare providers’ workflow. We’re setting up wireless transmission of data — including weight, blood pressure and blood sugar — from individuals’ devices to our platform. We’re launching our Evolve app for iOS and Android in the next few months so it’ll be easier to use our program on the go. We are also continuously refining our algorithms to optimize precision medicine for obesity treatment.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Intellihealth is truly a mission-driven company, and our objectives are meaningful and critical. This is a real advantage for us, as our company culture is empowered by an incredible team of individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise coming together around our central mission of helping people achieve lasting improvements to their health.
How do you define “Leadership”?
True leaders know where they want to go, but they keep an open mind about the best ways to get there. With a dynamic, talented and passionate team, leadership is as much about listening and learning from different perspectives as enabling them to inform decisions. When the team feels that sense of agency, they can be more motivated about the collective mission and create greater value.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Without a second of hesitation — Dr. Louis Aronne. He has spent his career pioneering and developing the field of obesity medicine. He has persevered despite skepticism and doubt to transform our understanding of what obesity is and how to treat it effectively. He has changed thousands of lives in countless ways that go way beyond weight loss and health outcomes. He taught me everything I know and practice clinically, and he has afforded Sloan and me this tremendous opportunity to build on his success though Intellihealth.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As physicians, we derive tremendous satisfaction from improving our patients’ health. While Dr. Aronne and I do this daily in our practice on an individual basis, the Intellihealth technology is positioned to bring our success to millions of people around the world. This will bring not only goodness but improved health outcomes, happiness and tremendous cost savings. As Dr. Laura Alonso, chair of endocrinology at Weill Cornell Medicine, once said, we have the potential to reduce the average BMI (body mass index) in the country.
Several times per week, our patients thank us for changing their lives. Before they were introduced to us and Evolve, other healthcare providers were scared to talk to them about their weight and offered little guidance beyond “eat less and exercise more.” Evolve can empower healthcare providers to address weight in a compassionate way and offer treatments that their patients desperately need.
What are the “5 Things You Need To Thrive As A Couple”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Dedication. Sloan and I met at nursery school. When I repeatedly rejected his pleas to “race me, race me” and told him “I don’t have my running shoes,” Sloan didn’t give up. Twenty-five years later, we got married thanks to Sloan’s dedication.
- Different expertise. Since the day we started dating when I was in medical school, everyone would ask if Sloan was in medicine too. People often assume that doctors only marry other doctors. While this works for many, I’ve always felt grateful that we didn’t have too much professional stuff to discuss at the dinner table. Until now … But it works because we’re on completely different sides of Intellihealth.
- Compatibility. We traveled around the world for a year between my residency and fellowship. We were together 24/7 for months at a time. I can’t tell you how many people told us they could never do that with their spouse. We did and came out of the experience a stronger couple.
- Passion. From the day I decided to specialize in obesity medicine, I’ve been passionate about my mission. When Sloan became more passionate than I was about the massive supply-demand mismatch associated with my profession, I took notice and we decided to team up with Dr. Aronne to start Intellihealth.
- Support. Specifically, child care — especially during the pandemic. We couldn’t function without above-and-beyond excellent child care in combination with four extremely involved grandparents.
You are people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement exists. There are many organizations that bring awareness to the disease of obesity and the need for effective treatment. Intellihealth is poised to scale provider training and patient care globally.
Check out the Obesity Action Coalition: “Our core focuses are to raise awareness and improve access to the prevention and treatment of obesity, provide evidence-based education on obesity and its treatments, fight to eliminate weight bias and discrimination, elevate the conversation of weight and its impact on health and offer a community of support for the individual affected.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
During my fellowship, I often asked Dr. Aronne how to communicate with healthcare providers who questioned our approach. Some called to share their doubts directly and others discouraged patients from working with us. When given the opportunity, I cited studies foundational to our field of medicine. It was hit or miss whether providers wanted to pay attention to the data from randomized controlled trials. Sometimes, I would realize months later that a patient had never returned for follow-up. Dr. Aronne has encountered this skepticism every step of the way throughout his career. His response to me was always, “prove them wrong.” I repeat these words every time I train healthcare providers eager to learn about obesity medicine and every time I’m faced with any level of doubt. Each one of our successful and grateful patients proves the skeptics wrong.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Melinda Gates — there’s a lot of work we could do together.
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Lessons from a Thriving Power Couple, with Sloan Saunders and Dr Katherine Saunders of Intellihealt was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.