Smarter Health Care on Your Smartphone: An Interview With Leah Sparks, Co-Founder and CEO of Wildflower Health
Leah Sparks (MBA ’01)
Co-founder and CEO of Wildflower Health Inc.
San Francisco, California
Wildflower Health provides a mobile health-engagement platform to improve healthcare quality and lower medical costs. The company aspires to leverage a unique set of analytics to deliver novel insights that improve treatment and cost-management in the clinical areas it supports.
Leah Sparks’ big idea crystalized when she was expecting her first child. Frustrated by the challenges of managing health-plan benefits and a myriad of appointments, she realized there was a huge gap in the health care system around the needs of pregnant women. In 2012, seeing an opportunity to harness mobile technology to improve women’s experiences and outcomes, Sparks and co-founder Kathy Bellevin launched Wildflower Health. The venture has since raised $15 million, and its focus on expectant mothers has widened to include other stages of life and health care needs. The company now works with nearly 100 hospitals and health plans that cover almost 50 million people.
Sean Carr: What took you down the entrepreneurial path? How did you get from being a Darden graduate in 2001 to where you are now?
Leah Sparks: When I was at Darden, it was the end of the golden age of startups in California, and we talked a lot about how so many dot-com business models lacked viability. I was finishing business school as the bubble was bursting, and I had two aspirations. One, I wanted to work in an industry where I could make a positive impact on people’s lives, and health care rose to the top. Two, I wanted to work in a company that had an almost industrial business model, so I could dig into something real. That’s how I ended up interning at McKesson after my First Year at Darden, and after graduation I joined McKesson’s strategy team.
At McKesson, I successfully started two business units, and my boss said something that really hit me: “Leah, some people are maintainers. They’re good at running large stable businesses. Other people are builders. They are good at innovating and creating new things. And I think you’re more of the latter.” That was a pivotal moment for me, someone articulating what I’ve known about myself since childhood. Because I really wanted to start a business not just inside a big company, I launched a small dot-com on the side. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do entrepreneurship and health care. I also knew that I needed to learn more, so after six years at McKesson, I left to join a personalized medicine startup.
Sean Carr: That must have been an interesting moment for you to jump ship from McKesson, which had everything you had wanted. And yet you took the plunge. How did you know that that was the right move?
Leah Sparks: I’m not sure that I did. It was a big leap. I took a pay cut, and I went from those fancy offices in downtown San Francisco to a waterfront shack. It was a dramatic change, but I loved it, and I learned so much. One of the things I learned is that there are easier ways to make money than being an entrepreneur, particularly in health care. I also learned that if I was going to do it and deal with the blood, sweat, and tears and the loneliness, I had to do something that I was really passionate about.
Sean Carr: Tell us about launching Wildflower.
Leah Sparks: Often, the first time people deal with the healthcare system is when they have their first pregnancy. In 2012, when I got pregnant, everything was phone and paper-based, and I got this piece of paper from my health plan that said, “You’re high-risk because you’re over 35. Please call us.” I was comparing that experience to using the BabyCenter app, where I could get this great content, like finding the right stroller. I realized that if we harnessed that technology, we could not only improve the experience, but also identify high-risk women, connect them to the right intervention, so that we could move the needle on outcomes. Given the rates of poor outcomes and lack of quality measures in the U.S. in maternity care, I knew there were billions of dollars to be saved with better consumer activation and connection to care.
Sean Carr: Could you describe Wildflower’s business model and tell us how you developed it?
Leah Sparks: The health care industry is a complicated system that’s not primed for risk-taking. I knew that nobody’s going to buy anything just because it’s innovative and better; it had to save someone money or make someone money. First, we tried to figure out who was on the hook for bad outcomes. At the time, it was health plans. So we focused on health plans, having a software licensing model that was tied to having ROI. We didn’t know we would have the outcomes that we thought we would, but we did a lot of testing with consumers to show that they would use an application like this and do that to connect to health care.
Frankly, the stakes are so high and the ROI is so obvious that it was easier for us to get our first clients to take that leap of faith. What’s interesting is that we were in an incubator in San Francisco, and I thought that our first clients would be based in Silicon Valley. But our first client was the State of Wyoming Medicaid, and the second one was Apple. Most of our clients have their own version of the application. They may be using our Wildflower version, but they’ve configured it with their content, their interventions, their clinical logic, so that it’s really attuned to their patient population and to the ROI measures they’re focused on.
We’ve been at this for five years since we got our first institutional funding, and we’ve gone beyond just pregnancy. We go end-to-end from pre-conception all the way through family health. When people start a family, they also begin that journey in a sandwiched generation — taking care of the kids and ageing parents—and so many health care decisions swirl around a family. So it really helps humanize the experience when you center it around taking care of those you love and help drive those connections to our clients that provide that ROI.
Sean Carr: Where do you see the future for Wildflower Health, and what are the next mountains you hope to climb?
Leah Sparks: In the past five years, we’ve expanded not only the product but also the client type, so we now work with health plans that cover almost 50 million people. Two years ago, we got in the hospital market, and we have about 100 hospitals in our client network, and that’s a big growth area for us. We want to be a personalization platform for families, providing highly personalized content and connections across every life stage. We think about how to knit together our client network to do that better.
Sean Carr: Looking back, how did your Darden experience influence or inform how you’ve carved out your career so far?
Leah Sparks: I was a journalism undergrad, and I came to Darden hungry to learn —l earn how to read financial statements and how to think about business strategy. I loved all quantitative classes. Later, when I was starting Wildflower, I remember downloading papers on venture capital terms and term sheets available to alumni, so Darden continued to be a resource. Really, Darden gave me the foundation for all my business knowledge and skills, and I’ve used those skills throughout my career.