7wireVentures Presents: Top of the Ladder Featuring 9amHealth Co-Founders & Co-CEOs Frank Westermann and Anton Kittelberger

At 7wireVentures, we look for founders who are as passionate as we are about addressing the largest health and care challenges we face as consumers — to be healthy. Founders with lived experiences and passion about the company they are building attract our attention. Those that have a personal connection to a problem are those who tend to stop at nothing to build a better world. 9amHealth’s Co-Founders, Frank Westermann and Anton Kittelberger know diabetes.

They met and bonded through their shared experience of living with type 1 diabetes and in 2012 launched mySugr which was acquired by Roche in 2017. Despite their success, Frank and Anton believed there was more work to be done to provide better access to care. We connected with the duo to learn more about their take on managing a business while living with a chronic condition, the complementary nature of their Co-CEO partnership, their journey to building a once-in-a-generation healthcare business, and much more in our latest Top of the Ladder feature.

Can you share your joint founding story behind 9amHealth and what inspired you to start the business?

Anton and Frank announcing mySugr’s exit to Roche to their team in 2017   

Anton and I co-founded and ran a digital diabetes management company called “mySugr.” We built a great product that helped millions of people with diabetes live healthier lives. We sold the company to Roche in 2017. mySugr continues to do great as part of the Roche family and has over 5 million patients on the platform today. We are, of course, still very proud of this.

As you can imagine, we learned a hell of a lot when we were running mySugr. And one thing always bothered us: mySugr was entirely digital. We did an excellent job of collecting data, providing data insights, and motivating patients to be engaged. Still, we could never treat a patient, prescribe medications, order labs, and clinically engage with a patient. During the COVID pandemic, we saw a lot of regulatory changes that accelerated the development of telehealth. As we both live with type 1 diabetes, we knew how disjunct and cumbersome the care journey was, yet nobody was putting all the pieces together the way we envisioned it.

Our goal was to create a unique patient experience, similar to a consumer product, that includes all critical clinical elements of chronic care from one place: a personalized care plan including fast prescriptions, medication delivery, at-home labs, and immediate access to specialty-level care, conveniently accessible through an app.

In the context of an increasingly growing demand for therapeutics focused on obesity, many of which have been described as “miracle drugs”, how does 9amHealth approach the intersection of weight management and diabetes treatment?

[1] J.P. Morgan

Diabetes is invisible. It doesn’t hurt; you don’t feel immediate pain if your blood glucose is too high, and the only promise of “diabetes control” is that you will not get sicker in the future. It’s not an easy sell for people who just want to live their lives.

GLP-1s offer a different promise–you lose weight and get healthier along the way. We consider GLP-1s to be a tremendous opportunity to engage people in their diabetes management and even help them avoid diabetes altogether.

Congratulations on your recent financing led by The Cigna Group Ventures (a member of 7wire’s Connected Consumer Health Coalition of Strategic Limited Partners)! What made Cigna an ideal partner for the business and how does the business plan to make use of the new capital?

Cigna is an exceptional partner. They have a fantastic team, and we love working with them. From a strategic perspective, collaborating with Cigna is a big win for us as this allows us to better align with the Cigna ecosystem. You will hear more details soon about how we are planning to work together. We are on a fast growth trajectory. With the new funding, we’ll be able to grow the team and further invest in our member experience and AI capabilities.

As leaders in the digital health space, what trends or technologies are you most excited about? How do you see these shaping the future of cardiometabolic care?

We have two secular trends that will heavily impact the future of cardiometabolic care and, consequently, the future of 9amHealth: the broader adaption and better understanding of GLP-1s and AI. Over time, we will see more studies and better data on the right GLP-1 strategies, more efficient usage, and other positive impacts of GLP-1, such as in NASH or potentially dementia.

Personally, I’m most fascinated by the advances in AI. It will transform our societies and many aspects of healthcare, from drug discovery to care delivery. AI will profoundly change how clinical decisions are made in cardiometabolic care, and we need to rethink how we come to these decisions and if our old models are still the best. As an example: Why do we always take the same dose of a drug? Are there days when it would be better to take more or less? I’m pretty sure the answer is somewhere in the data, and we need to find ways to get the data and provide better-informed decisions in real-time.

Continuing to look ahead, what are your long-term goals and aspirations for 9amHealth? How do you envision the company making a lasting impact in the chronic condition management space?

We currently provide the best-in-class patient experience for prediabetes, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and weight management. Providing an exceptional experience and further enhancing it are our number one priorities. In addition, we are also looking into other high-spend chronic diseases with poor patient experiences as a potential expansion area.

As a co-CEOs, what personal values or qualities do you believe have contributed to your ability to collaborate effectively with each other?

Frank: Anton and I have been working together for over 10 years now. The basis for such a long and successful partnership is straightforward: trust and friendship. It probably also helps that we both don’t have big egos. The company’s success is our personal success, not vice versa.

Anton: We draw energy from working together and knowing our strengths and principles. In areas where we overlap, we enjoy sparring and reflecting. While our discussions can be heated, we don’t fight.

What is your superpower?

Frank:  It sounds strange, but my professional superpower is that I live with type 1 diabetes. Since I was a kid, I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. My diabetes diagnosis suddenly gave me something that I understand better and more deeply than most others: how it is to live with a chronic condition like diabetes. It took me a few years to realize that, and it certainly wasn’t the first thought after my diagnosis, but at the end of the day, it gave me not only a superpower but a life mission.

Anton: I also live with type 1 diabetes, and just like Frank, the disease put me on a mission that I am incredibly passionate about. Diabetes has enabled my superpower to go non-stop and with incredible intensity because I love what I am doing. I love why we are building 9amHealth, and the people I work with every day are the best! Since we started to build companies, work has never felt like work. That makes it easy to enjoy it.

Are there any specific books, podcasts, or resources that have had a significant impact on your personal growth or leadership style?

9amHealth founding team and Glen in front of the company’s HQ in Encinitas 

Frank:  I’m lucky to have Glen Tullman, my leadership role model, on our Board, and I try to learn as much from him as I can from every conversation. Besides that, I’m very interested in politics, history, and what’s happening in our world. I’m really into the daily news but and always trying to understand the bigger picture and why things happen. I’m currently reading Ray Dalio’s The Changing World Order and find it fascinating.

Anton: Working at our family business very early on, I witnessed my father’s “my way or the highway” leadership style. Later in life, I saw various styles from someone who prioritized keeping his job by all means, making friends and always choosing the path of least resistance to an executive who was an incredibly aggressive innovator. Every one of these shaped me in defining how I wanted to be: I always want to embody why we are doing what we are doing, stay open, forward-thinking but concrete, trusting, driven, and hopefully fun to work with! Today, I get to learn the most from our regular meetings with Glen Tullman and our Board meetings. It’s inspiring to watch Glen navigate difficult discussions in a fun and supporting way and learn from all the examples of situations he experienced, many of which are similar to what we are going through today.

Finally, as second-time founders, what advice would you give to first-time founders looking to innovate in the healthcare industry?

Frank: 1) Make a list of what is important to you, and find something that drives, motivates, and excites you. There are so many problems in healthcare, and there is plenty to choose from. 2) Surround yourself with people you enjoy working with who are smart and have the same drive and hunger. 3) Get investors who understand healthcare, and have a deep network in the industry. Get good advisors. If it’s your first start-up and you don’t have a network, they can supercharge your journey.

Anton: I would advise finding co-founders you want to spend your next 10+ years with. Focus on building something that you are proud of and fills you with joy every day. Carefully assess the business model options your journey could end up in. B2C vs B2B are two very different journeys that are only for some. Especially if your business will likely be (or end up in) B2B or B2B2C, seek investors who are only making healthcare investments. It’s these firms that typically have incredible LPs who are interested in the portfolio, and that allows them to open doors for you that normally would stay closed. Most importantly, enjoy the journey. It’s the best.