Calibrate Founder & CEO Isabelle Kenyon on Fixing an Archaic Healthcare System: "I Was Obsessed"
Isabelle Kenyon describes herself as “endlessly curious.” Born in New Jersey, she spent the first part of her career bouncing around roles in Hong Kong, London, and Nairobi before taking a call with a recruiter to discover what was next. The recruiter thought she’d be perfect for a startup. “They said, ‘You seem to like high-growth things,’” Kenyon recalls with a laugh.
She was working in marketing and GM roles across several startups when she broke her back and pelvis while skiing in 2015. “It was my first real interaction with the healthcare system, and I was obsessed,” Kenyon says. “I thought, ‘Everything about this is a retail business that should be an e-commerce business.’ The quality of care is amazing, and the delivery of that care is archaic.”
The first healthcare category she felt was ripe for innovation was pharmacy, so she joined a startup called Capsule based in New York City. There, she did “a little bit of everything,” including operations, growth, sales and marketing for consumers and doctors, and then finally pharma partnerships. As she saw companies like hims and Roman reimagine direct-to-consumer care, Kenyon couldn’t stop thinking about the next evolution of that trend within insurance and healthcare.
She was toying with a few ideas in the health space when her mom was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, just like one in two American adults. “She totally freaked out,” Kenyon says. “She said, ‘You have to help me find a doctor to take control of my health, because I feel totally out of control.’” They were thrilled to learn there are doctors who specialize in weight loss. “There are 4,000 of them, and that’s amazing,” Kenyon says, “but there are 175 million of my mom.”
It was a lightning bulb moment for Kenyon. “We know how to treat people clinically for their weight,” she says. “We know it involves improving your underlying metabolic health to drive long-term, sustained results. We’ve known this for decades, and we’re not getting [the right care] to people.” The more Kenyon learned about the standard regimens that doctors use to improve health—the medications, the treatments, how well-suited the routines were for digital distribution—the more she said, “‘We have to fix this.’” In late 2019, Calibrate was finally born to do just that.
One of Kenyon’s first moves was putting together a clinical advisory board, blending the best experts in obesity science and nutrition science. From there, she determined how she could widely distribute the great clinical advice that doctors had been utilizing for years, as well as what the business model would look like. After getting a great group of investors together, in some ways, Calibrate took off like a rocket.
Kenyon will never forget the day she launched the company website. It was friends and family only, but the team did take out a few Google search ads for the occasion. “Within hours, a woman in upstate New York found us, spent less than three minutes on the website, and took out a $1550 loan to help pay for a program that had no reviews, no testimonials, no one had ever done it before,” says Kenyon. “She purchased before any of our friends and family. That was just the ultimate validation that the market was super-broken, and what we had built was resonating with people.”
How did the endlessly-curious Kenyon know to trust her gut and start Calibrate, when she was so used to getting excited about new ideas? “It’s kind of cheesy, but also worth repeating until people believe it,” she says about that instinct. “There will be so many ideas that you’re excited about, that you can picture yourself running, picture the team you’ll build around it, and think, ‘The world needs this business.’ But then you come up with the idea that you obsess over. You fall asleep thinking about it, you dream about it, you’re in the shower thinking about it, all you talk to anyone about is this idea, and it’s different.”
How is it different? “You know you want to spend the next 20 years of your life on it,” Kenyon says. That's plenty of time to change the way the world treats weight.