A study by the Global Burden of Disease 2015 Obesity Collaborators, recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that an astonishing 35% of all American adults and 15% of children are clinically obese. Obesity is not just associated with reduced quality of life; it also puts people at significantly increased risk of deadly, costly conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And its prevalence is not only an American problem. It’s a global threat that will require innovation and solution-sharing across governments, communities, industries and disciplines to neutralize.
Online start-up OurPath has signed up for the challenge in the United Kingdom. Its six week program, delivered via smartphone app, aims to help people at risk of type 2 diabetes adopt healthier habits. Leveraging principles from the science of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it provides users with education on nutrition, virtual guidance and encouragement from a specially-trained health coach and peer support group, and a wired scale and activity tracker to automatically measure health progress.
In a study conducted by the company, participants for whom data was available after six months experienced a mean body weight loss of over 8%. Those are promising results, given the difficulty millions of people have shedding unhealthy pounds, and analyses OurPath cites linking a bodyweight loss of just 5-7% with a 50% reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes.
Some influential industry stakeholders agree that OurPath exhibits potential to help people improve their health, and as a result, save money in care costs over the long-term. Venture capitalists have invested £500,000 in the company. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) is trialing OurPath’s program, along with other digital solutions, to determine its impact on prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, which costs the NHS over £8 billion annually. And the pharmaceutical company Roche Diabetes Care has entered into an ambitious partnership with OurPath to put another 750,000 Brits through its program, which it estimates could save the NHS over £500 million ($700 million).
Clearly, OurPath is an innovator worth watching. But does its offering have the potential to disrupt the weight loss industry? We put it to the test with six questions for identifying a Disruptive Innovation.
1. Does it target people whose only alternative is to buy nothing at all (nonconsumers) or who are overserved by existing offerings in the market?
No. The commercial weight loss and diet control market is large, with annual revenues estimated at $60 billion by research firm Marketdata LLC, and rife with options. Solutions readily available to consumers range from real-world/digital hybrid programs like that of long-time market leader Weight Watchers to thousands of smartphone apps. And yet, it would be hard to argue consumers were overserved by these options, when so many fail to help them in the fundamental task of achieving and maintaining weight loss.
2. Is the offering not as good as existing offerings as judged by historical measures of performance?
No–it might be better. According to the consumer’s historical performance measure of successful, sustained weight loss, OurPath exhibits promising early results. This would imply it outperforms, rather than underperforms, many existing offerings.
3. Is the innovation simpler to use, more convenient, or more affordable than existing offerings?
It depends. At £60 (or $80) per person per six week program, it’s much cheaper than some weight loss programs. And, very conveniently, all necessary equipment is supplied, results tracking is automatic, and users needn’t attend meetings or visit their supporting professionals. But it’s certainly more expensive than free, advertiser-supported apps, and may be no simpler or more convenient. Personal preference will vary greatly on this point.
4. Does the offering have a technology that enables it to improve and move upmarket?
Possibly. In Disruption Theory, a disruptive technology is not necessarily a gadget, but a process for transforming inputs into outputs; and “moving upmarket” typically means developing the ability to serve customers yielding an increasingly higher return on investment. In this context, OurPath’s core technology is its CBT-based process for supporting behavior change.
Since its inception in the 1960’s, CBT has been applied to a diversity of challenging conditions ranging from anxiety and depression, to eating disorders and substance abuse; and a strong evidence base has emerged in its favor on a number of fronts. Assuming astute innovation management, this suggests that OurPath may be able to improve and extend its application of CBT to support healthy weight loss amongst obese people with increasingly challenging internal and external barriers to behavior change.
Health systems, insurers and providers should be willing to invest more in OurPath’s solution to achieve positive results in such populations, given the difficulty of achieving them, and the high costs of failure in terms of treatment expense for obesity-related diseases.
5. Is the technology paired with a business model innovation that allows it to be sustainable?
Yes. OurPath does sell directly to consumers–a brutal path to growth and sustainability that many of its competitors have taken. But if its relationships with Roche and the UK’s NHS are an accurate indication, the company’s business model relies most heavily on partnerships with very large, stable organizations that can bring significant installed customer bases to the table. Depending on how these deals are structured, and how skilled OurPath is at forging them, the company’s business model could be a better path to sustainability than the direct-to-consumer models of competitors.
6. Are existing providers motivated to ignore the new innovation and not feel threatened by it at the outset?
No. Per point #1, the weight loss space is intensely competitive, and consumer switching costs are negligible. So there’s no reason for competitors to believe OurPath doesn’t represent a threat, whether its solution is sold to consumers directly, or offered through one of its partners. We trust OurPath is figuratively looking over its shoulder at its many competitors, too.
Based on strict application of the Theory of Disruptive Innovation and what we know about OurPath today, the company is not likely to become a disruptive force in the weight loss industry. But if it can replicate, scale and sustain its successes to date, it has the potential to significantly reduce human suffering, as well as healthcare costs. That’s innovation worth investing in.
For more about innovation in chronic disease prevention and management, see Health for hire: Unleashing patient potential to reduce chronic disease costs.