Esther Dyson’s Way to Wellville Model Is Paved with Support, Jobs, and Funding

Esther Dyson tells Thomas Goetz, Co-founder of Iodine and former Wired Magazine Editor, About the organization she co-founded, HiCCup, and her ambitious Road to Wellville project.

Esther Dyson tells government and private sector leaders at Healthcare Datapalooza 2015 about the organization she co-founded, HiCCup, and her ambitious Road to Wellville project.

It’s a major challenge for the U.S. to figure out how to set so many more citizens on the path to healthier lives.  Entrepreneur, angel investor, and philanthropist, Esther Dyson, has embarked on a 5-10 year national challenge, The Way to Wellville, to show how to make the world healthier, community by community, with “multiple, interacting health-promoting activities.”

The high-energy chairman of EDventure Holdings described her latest project in her keynote at the 6th annual Healthcare Datapalooza. Esther founded nonprofit organization, HICCup (Health Initiative Coordinating Counsel), to rally around a project “to encourage new models and markets for the production of health.”

An active angel investor in health data startups 23andMe, HealthTap, PatientsLikeMe and several others, Esther has found her current experience eye-opening.  she explains:

 I came into this as a nice person concerned about poor people…and discovered there is a serious hole that other people fall into as well.

You fall into that hole, whether you lose your car, you get sick, your husband runs off, you don’t pay parking tickets — you can lose your job, your home.  They’re all intertwined.  People in Washington DC and on the coasts don’t see that this hole is real.  It is a combination of things that feed on each other.  If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to your dental appointment, same with child care.  Then, people stuck alone in their homes get lonely and some turn to substance abuse again.

Esther’s goal is to help create measurably healthier communities that people want to move to, where there is better food and more work opportunities.

We’re trying to build these programs, write the business plans, define the financial flows — is it health and insurance companies who will pay? Local taxes? Is there a social impact investor that’s going to get half the cost savings and you need to keep track of that carefully.

Key Community Criteria

The Way to Wellville sought five motivated, defined communities with under 100,000 people.  They looked for geographically discreet communities where you could “see and change things through collective action.”  Esther observes:

If you really want to make change it is easier to do it at critical density vs. great scale.

One condition had to be present: The community had to have a group that already decided it needed to be healthy and would like some outside help.  They don’t have a lot of investment bankers and financial people or attract pilot projects.

To the founder’s amazement, 42 communities applied to be a Way to Wellville community, from which it chose five to attract talent and invest in healthy lifestyle businesses.  Rick Brush serves as the project’s CEO.  The communities are:

  • Clatsop County, Oregon
  • Greater Muskegon, Michigan
  • Lake County, California
  • Niagara Falls, New York
  • Spartanburg, South Carolina

The rest of the applicants are now part of an online healthcare and healthy lifestyle support and educational community.

Esther says:

People in our communities are not thinking about healthcare.  They’re thinking about jobs, children, food, trying to figure out can they be late on car payments to buy a football for their kid to take to school.  Whatever people in the community are doing, you’re now asking them to do something additional.

National Scale Is Too Big to Experiment

Esther has perspective on what government can and can’t do well. She related this conversation about piloting in smaller communities:

I was talking to ‘mumble VC’ when we started this and said: ‘We’re going to take these communities, make them healthy, change the food supply.  They said that’s really nice, Esther.  But, that’s OK.  Ten years from now we’ll give everyone a Fitbit and it will be automatic… [you’re supposed to laugh].  I wanted to tell him he should fly commercial more often.

So, the idea is: It’s not the choices people make, it’s also the choices they have.  Our challenge is to help communities build their own capacity and train their own people to do these things; our second is to help them define business models and find funding.

Preparing for Impact

Seeking to document ways of having an impressive impact over 5-10 years, The Way to Wellville is receiving guidance on which results to measure from respected members of the health and wellness industry.

Rallying initial assistance took some convincing.  Esther explains:

The first time I talked to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about this their reaction was: That’s sweet.  Now they’re funding Rethink Health to work with us on the model.

People face grave problems in each of the five chosen communities, but the populations are relatively small enough to explore and measure outcomes of new ways of healthier living.  Esther observes:

Yes, there’s money so we can hire people.  Direct care diabetes management care, care coordination, restaurants, sports clubs, urban gardening — all will employ people but we need to restructure the business models so that people are in the business of producing health, rather tan trying to recover it.

But, it’s not enough that you notice, not just enough so that a data scientist will notice, she explains:

It has to be big enough so the mayor, and ideally the press and Silicon Valley billionaires and the people in Washington, DC notice.  And they’re going to say, Boy, if those jokers in Wellville can do that, so can we.  And it will inspire them.

That’s the plan.

On a personal note:

I had interviewed Esther’s father, Freeman Dyson, the British-born astrophysicist over 25 years ago and really enjoyed him.  It was one of six scientist interviews in the textbook College Physics, Serway and Faughn (Third Edition). See that here: Doc Jun 04, 2015, 17_11

I was hoping to meet Esther at Healthcare Datapalooza 2015, tweeting an invitation for her to come to the GeoHealth.US booth where I was helping out.  I’d checked in between presentations but she didn’t come.

On the final exhibition day, she was over with Jean Case at the Case Foundation, but the conference organizer who mentioned it didn’t know when or if she’d be back.

I had to leave early, stopped at a bank machine, then set one foot onto the down escalator at the Woodley Park Metro Station.  At that exact moment, Esther appeared on the up side.

“Esther, hi!” I said, stepping back off the downward escalator.  I was the one who tweeted to you to come to the Geohealth.us booth.”

“I did,”  she said.  “The British fellow was there.”

“Pete!  I didn’t know.  He had no idea who you were.”

She shrugged and waited politely for me to continue.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for a while,” I said, reaching for my cell phone.  “I interviewed your father in 1990.”  I held up my phone with a copy of the by-lined interview with her dad’s photo credited to her sister, Mia.

She looked curiously at her father’s photo on my mobile phone.  I promised to email her the interview and walked her to the top of the hill to the hotel where she had an appointment in five minutes. She suggested that GeoHealth.us connect with a company she knew and offered to forward an email to them.

She glanced over and noticed the hotel’s gated swimming pool.

“Oh, there’s the pool,” she said.  “It doesn’t open early enough to get in a swim before I have to go to the airport.  I’ll have to jump the fence.”

Strong, smart, open-minded, committed to the public good, and irreverent —  like her dad.

Mission accomplished.  I hugged her and repeated the promise to send her a copy of the interview.  But, I want to do more than that.  I want to do what I can from Washington, DC, to help communities find the way to Wellville.  Please tell me how I can help.

You can read about Esther’s 2008 decision to accept an offer from Space Adventures to train as backup for Charles Simoni, author of Microsoft Word, next (and repeat) customer to go as a “space tourist” to the International Space Station.  A $20 million ride. “The Road Not Taken: A Detour to Space (Almost) Confirms My Path on Earth.”

About Janice K. Mandel

I've been telling company stories for years and am curious about trends and new ventures. I am an entrepreneur currently in the direct pay healthcare space. Early adopter experience in New York City included: Sr. Editor, EIC/Intelligence, the first online, commercial database (1980s);Communications/Voice of Equinta.com, like Zillow but in 1999; and Reach networks -- like Mosaic, only four years sooner. I am working with a healthcare platform helping to invent the future of United States Healthcare. I contribute to StartupGrind publications.
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