Andrew Chen, Dr. Stephen Bekanich and Steve Wardle, co-founders of Iris Plans

Publisher with Silicon Hills News

For Dr. Stephen Bekanich, treating long-term illnesses early on with advance care planning is a personal mission.

Dr. Bekanich’s grandmother had metastatic breast cancer and his grandfather had dementia.

“Even as a physician I felt ill prepared to be able to take them through this,” Dr. Bekanich said.

Their illnesses prompted Dr. Bekanich to switch his medical practice to become one of the nation’s experts on palliative care, an approach to improve the lives of patients and families suffering from long-term illnesses by creating a plan early on to deal with the treatment of physical problems like pain and emotional distress. He saw a huge shortage of palliative care doctors nationwide and some patients didn’t have access to a program because of geography.

At his children’s school, Dr. Bekanich met Andrew Chen, who at the time was senior director of product management at Spredfast, and previously principal product manager with BazaarVoice. Together, they founded a predecessor company to Iris Plans, with the idea of offering advanced care planning to people with serious medical conditions through video.

For the first 10 months, Dr. Bekanich and Chen bootstrapped the previous company and then Lee Walker, former president of Dell and a mentor of Dr. Bekanich, asked them to pitch to a group of investors. Steve Wardle, who previously worked as regional CEO for the Grameen Foundation, a microfinance nonprofit organization, in Africa, was in the audience that day. He also has a background in commercial and investment banking.

“At the end, Steve said the idea is great, but the business model needs some work. Let’s see if we can shore that up a little bit,” Dr. Bekanich said. The three decided to re-form the company and create Iris Plans, with Wardle joining as co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. The three founders have been together working on Iris Plans since 2015.

Iris Plans on Wednesday announced it has raised $5.1 million in venture capital led by New York City-based Activate Venture Partners, and Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners. Other investors include Oakland-based impact investor Better Ventures.

Iris Plans has gotten a lot of customers since its launch. Initially, the company went directly to the consumer. Now it delivers its service through partnerships with large national healthcare providers and health insurance companies who cover 100 percent of the cost for their members. Its customers include Humana and Brookdale Senior Living Inc., the largest assisted living provider in the country.

Iris Plans offers Advanced Care Planning services to patients and their caregivers through interactive online tools and live video conference sessions with specialized care facilitators. It then documents detailed medical directives for patients to help them receive future care in-line with their preferences.

“We want to make this effortless for patients and families,” Dr. Bekanich said. “We’re dealing with a population that is very vulnerable. They are going through significant stressors. They don’t want razzle-dazzle and all kinds of bells and whistles. They want their connections to the healthcare system to be as simple and effortless as possible.”

Iris Plans currently has nine full-time employees and 15 part-time workers. It expects to add five full-time employees and 10 part-time employees by the end of the year. The company, based in 3,000 square feet at 2121 E. Sixth Street, has room to grow.

Iris Plans can also save up to 25 percent on healthcare costs, Wardle said.

“If you look at the U.S. compared to other countries, we spend two and a half times more than the average, per person, on healthcare and our outcomes are towards the bottom,” he said. “In short, we’re getting a bad value right now. And there are complex reasons for that.”

“In general, there is an opportunity for our healthcare system to deliver much better value to people,” he said.

Sixty percent of personal bankruptcies are driven by medical costs that are just out of control, Wardle said. There’s a lot of room to help in that, he said.

Iris Plans is aimed at improving quality of care, improving the experience and lowering the out of pocket costs for the patients, Wardle said.

The number one reason LiveOak Venture Partners invested in Iris Plans is the impressive team to go tackle this market opportunity, said Krishna Srinivasan, general partner at LiveOak Venture Partners.

It’s a huge market opportunity and Iris Plans has already gotten huge traction, Srinivasan said.

“We all have loved ones, we all see the importance of this category called advanced care planning, there is plenty of evidence right now about the importance of this both from a cost and as well as from patient wellbeing and families wellbeing perspective. There is just a real need for advanced care planning – this is something we are convinced about,” Srinivasan said.

This is LiveOak Venture Partners’ third healthcare investment and its 20th portfolio company. It has also invested in NarrativeDX and Digital Pharmacist, both based in Austin.

The need for advanced care planning is seen across all populations whether it’s Medicare, Medicaid or the commercial healthcare system, Dr. Bekanich said.

“These serious illnesses that we’re tackling they are on the rise concurrently with the aging population that we have,” he said. “So, we are looking at heart disease, COPD, emphysema, stroke, late-stage cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, end-stage kidney failure or kidney disease – we don’t have cures for those things. They are illnesses that people live with for a prolonged period – years, sometimes decades.”

There is $210 billion spent every year on unnecessary care, Wardle said.

“A lot of that is spent on the population that has a serious chronic illness,” he said. “Ultimately, that leads to a bad experience for them. It leads to high out of pocket costs for them. It leads to a lot of stress on the family. And not necessarily the right trade-offs people think they are getting. That population is set to double and triple in the coming years. We have a rapidly aging population. And as people are getting older in the U.S., they are experiencing these kinds of conditions.”

There are a lot of barriers preventing doctors from doing advanced care planning, Wardle said.

“And the physicians want it,” Dr. Bekanich said. “They feel like it’s important like it’s necessary. We even have feelings of guilt or shame when we don’t have the discussions. But it’s almost impossible for physicians to do this with any kind of consistency or scale because of conversations are filled with conflict and they are very unpredictable in terms or how long they are going to last. They are time intensive. They are very emotional. So if you are having a bunch of these it’s easy to feel burnt out or spent. And we don’t teach people how to have these conversations.”

“That’s not part of what we learn in medical school. We learn to be great technicians, and surgeons, and diagnosticians and so forth, when a lot of the problems in this serious illness population could be handled much better with a conservation than an order for a new test or procedure.”

“For Iris Plans, because it’s technology enabled, it allows people to do this off-hours, after work, on the weekend, whatever is convenient. We can serve them virtually” Chen said.