Young CEO Out to Transform Health Care

Grant Verstandig’s Twitter bio reads, “The best way to walk on water is to know where the rocks are.”

And Verstandig does seem to walk on water. He received a prestigious National Cancer Institute fellowship in high school and spent his summers in the lab working on cancer treatments with mice. He enrolled in an Ivy League school. And now he’s the 21-year-old CEO of an up-and-coming health company, Audax, which is trying to change the way patients experience health care.

But Verstandig is quick to acknowledge what his rocks are: a stellar set of mentors and role models—founders like Eric Schmidt of Google, John Shermyen of LogistiCare, Rick Klausner of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Larry Ellison of Oracle—and a supportive team of coworkers and investors. His pragmatic attitude doesn’t hurt, either.

“I had to jump in with both feet,” Verstandig said matter-of-factly. “There’s basically no time or space for a lack of confidence.”

Diagnosing the Problem

After his research fellowship and various medical internships in high school, Verstandig went to Brown University to study neurobiology and eventually become a surgeon. Unlike many would-be M.D.s, he wasn’t following in his parents’ footsteps. A native of Washington, DC, Verstandig is the son of two government employees.

“I wanted to do something where my parents had no expertise, and I could just plot my own course,” he said. “If I succeeded it was going to be because I could, rather than because of a political connection.”

Once at Brown, Verstandig began taking classes in entrepreneurship, reading case studies about Internet technologies. But before the startup bug could catch on, he found himself in the hospital for his most serious knee surgery, one of seven he would undergo. That, plus time spent working in the neurological oncology wing of a children’s hospital, convinced him that there are problems to be solved in health care, now.

One of the most prominent problems is lack of control: patients, uninformed about the latest treatments and worried about their diagnoses, are simply told what to do by doctors. Verstandig also disliked the overwhelming emphasis on medical fixes like medications and surgeries rather than behavioral changes like diet and exercise. So he decided to trade in his dream of becoming a surgeon for the unpredictable life of the entrepreneur.

“I found there were other ways besides staying in school and doing surgery that you could really impact people’s lives,” Verstandig said.

Building a Solution

After one more semester at Brown, Verstandig took a leave of absence to launch Audax. Audax’s largest product, Careverge, is an online platform where patients form communities and get personalized information to improve their health. They can post on discussion boards, play games, and receive daily reminders about appointments and medications—and, in the end, become more active consumers of health care.

Talk to Verstandig or read his blog, and you’ll find him praising his team. Over the past year, he has learned to be patient and look for experienced, smart people, rather than hurriedly filling positions. And his work has paid off: with over thirty employees, Audax is now looking for a third, institutional round of financing.

Being a leader has come naturally to Verstandig given his background in sports—he played everything from tennis and golf to lacrosse, football, soccer, basketball, and boxing. He often takes on the role of motivator, reminding his team of a vision that was sparked in a Brown classroom and is coming to life before their eyes. He attributes many of their successes so far to sharing a fundamental motivation and passion.

And this applies to investors, too. “Find investors that believe in you and your vision and are going to be a part of your company through the ups and the downs,” Verstandig said.

Audax has faced its share of downs. According to Verstandig, the company had to rethink its business model several times, change its target demographic, and switch to a different coding language for its software. And on a personal level, he has to deal with the fact that he is, after all, only 21.

“The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity,” Verstandig said, speaking of his age. On one hand, he doesn’t have business experience and is unfamiliar with all the possible pitfalls. But on the other hand, he hasn’t become frustrated by corporate bureaucracy and remains very optimistic.

“I have my dream, I have my idea, and I’m going to run with it,” he said. And if this modern-day miracle worker has his way, he’ll find enough rocks to run straight to success.

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