Changemakers: Joel Theisen, Founder and CEO, Lifesprk

Minnesota-based whole person senior services provider Lifesprk is working to change the experiences people have as they age.

Led by founder and CEO Joel Theisen, Lifesprk is doing so by leveraging people, processes and technology. The company’s overall goal: to create a meaningful experience that allows older adults to maintain their passions and social well-being as they grow older.

Among Theisen’s changemaking efforts, he helped Lifesprk launch an innovative joint venture — Homespire — with Intermountain Healthcare. Most recently, he also helped the company build a hospital-at-home program with nearby North Memorial Health, just a couple months after raising $16 million, in part, to build an electronic life record.

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Theisen’s key to fostering successful change? A willingness to “fail forward.”

HHCN: You founded Lifesprk in 2004. What was your goal by launching the company?

Theisen: My goal for launching Lifesprk — originally named AgeWell — was simple. I had just come off a venture deal in the geriatric care space. I wanted to really redefine the experience for seniors across the longitudinal continuum. I just wasn’t happy with the way that we deliver these snippets of care and snippets of services. I wanted to build more of a relationship with trust, snapping together a lot of the different parts of our health care ecosystem.

The goal was to create a better experience and do something more meaningful and more important. That’s what I set out to do with Lifesprk, and I’m still on that journey.

You must have had a unique perspective, too, because you actually were a front-line health care worker at one point, right?

Absolutely. I mean, I’m a nurse by training and background.

I always like to say that to be an out-of-the-box thinker, you first have to be in the box. So I was in the boxes in the old days, for sure. And that created a lot of consternation and pain for me as a clinician. As a nurse, it often felt like I wasn’t able to really provide the gifts, the insight and the value that I wanted to bring to people. You can’t deliver a trusted relationship or real value, and truly care for a person, in 30 days, 90 days or however many short-term days. I just felt constrained by that box. I was absolutely in the set parameters of my profession. It didn’t feel good, and it caused me to break out.

By 2006, just two years after founding Lifesprk, you had grown the company to more than 200 employees. You guys grew really fast. How else has Lifesprk changed on a high level over the years?

Oh, my gosh. It’s continually changed. Lifesprk is in “morph mode” all the time. I’ll say that’s been true until about now. I think we’re getting some stability around our vision, our model. But to answer your question on how we’ve changed, it’s taken a lot of time. Change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re not a one-hit wonder or overnight success. It takes a long time. The key to us growing and changing has been to aggregate the top talent, to find the best people and to bring the right insights into the company.

By doing that, we’ve created more and more “stretch” on the care experience we offer. What I mean by that is: We all know that we have to provide medical services and the actual care. But then you get into purpose, passion and identity. When you have the right mix of people having the right conversations, you can be agnostic to environments. You can be in the home setting, but what about assisted living and memory care? That’s home for a lot of people.

So how has Lifesprk changed? We’ve changed by increasingly being able to take all these different environments and all these different payers. Today, we can provide almost any service, any place, any time, to people living in any environment. That let’s us create long-term, lifelong relationships.

We’ve worked hard to extend what we call our alternative delivery system. We want a new delivery system, not a siloed one. And that’s how we’ve changed. We’re all about breaking down the walls between private-pay home care, home health care, hospice and palliative care, transitional care, skilled nursing, assisted living services — you name it. Let’s take all that and put it into a model that focuses around the client, not around the payer or the environment or the disease. That’s how I think we’ve changed the most.

I think that almost goes against most growth stories, right? I think a lot of companies get bigger, find success and become stuck in their ways. Lifesprk has continued to grow, but it also keeps branching out.

That is exactly the intention. And you’re right. I mean, I’ve had the opportunity over the years, especially early in my career when I was a very goal-driven person, to build scale in very vertical or siloed models.

When LifeSprk started, I didn’t want to take institutional capital, so I raised $500,000. And probably this year or soon after, we’re going to be doing about $50 million in revenue. Monetary size has never been our goal. It’s always been around creating a learning lab, creating a better system to ultimately scale. We’ll never try to grow for growth’s sake or just use financial metrics as our barometer of success. We’re measuring other things — like the ability to bring smiles back to people’s faces, to bring a spark back into their eyes.

What’s a specific changemaking effort you’re particularly proud of in your career?

I would say two things. One, on more of the people side, I’m really proud of the fact that the people here at Lifesprk have been able to deliver on their own purpose and passion. Seeing that culture grow throughout our organization over time has been special for me. I’m proud of that.

And then, as it relates to more of a business case, I would say I’m really proud that we’ve been able to build an alternative delivery system and have all those different pieces of long-term care, of home- and community-based care. Of course, seeing other people recognize what we’ve built is a proud moment for me as well. We’ve, for example, signed a global risk, value-based contract with UCare, one of the largest Medicare Advantage players in Minnesota. That’s a key validation point for me.

How about on the flip side of that? What’s something that you wanted to change that didn’t end up going as planned?

Oh, man, there are tons of examples. I have tons of fail-forwards. I’m a prolific failer. But there is one thing that comes to mind. I don’t quit easily. I’m actually finally starting to make some inroads on this, but I guess one of the big things I wanted to change for the longest time was the integration of health care and technology.

In my past, about 12 years ago, I tried to build a telehealth platform that would have an integrated, electronic medical record (EMR) that can be universal around a client. I failed miserably and consistently for many years.

There’s no clear-cut reimbursement model for telehealth or things like that. It’s starting to change, but, in the past, there was never a whole lot of movement in the market around tech for home- and community-based care that’s integrated through. I can remember many times where I’ve deployed or tried to deploy telehealth capabilities, only to end up with poor adoption, poor reimbursement or poor integration. And then I had to reboot. I’ve probably rebooted on the telehealth and technology side about 10 or 15 times over the last decade.

With that said, I am able to go “all in” now. We recently hired one of the best CTOs in the country. And he’s developed a crack-shot team of about 10 or so engineers. We’re going all in on this concept: an electronic life record. We are going to figure it out.

So is “fail forward” kind of like your personal mission statement?

Yeah, absolutely. How do you learn? If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and take a few changes, you’ll never find your path. We still hate to say we fail at Lifesprk, sure. But as I get older, I feel much better about it. Really great innovation has been born from failure.

In the past, there were home health providers who just did home health, primary care providers who just did primary care, so on and so forth. You’re doing everything under the same roof at Lifesprk. Do you think we’re going to see more of that moving forward? Will we see more breaking of silos?

Great question. 100%. Silos have failed us. “Sick care” has failed us. We need a new design, and we need a new ability to serve people from their point of view and meet them where they’re at, versus throwing our preconceived notions and ideas on people and trying to fix seemingly every problem from a medical perspective.

But there are a lot of headwinds to that change, right? There’s a lot of support for keeping the old ways of doing things, the old ways of getting paid for things — for treating sickness on a fee-for-service basis.

We’re in a society where we pay when they’re sick. We pay to fix sick. Unfortunately, up until recently, we haven’t rewarded wellness. We haven’t paid for prevention. We haven’t paid for well-being. We haven’t paid for helping people be their best versions of themselves.

So, yes, I think we’ll one day see more silos broken down. But I think there are a lot of headwinds now. That’s just how economics and people work. But there is huge movement from payers like Humana and integrated delivery systems like University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Many of these big groups are moving toward an integrated delivery model.

How have you had to change as a person and as a leader since launching Lifesprk?

Oh, geez. I definitely listen more and do less. When you’re starting up a company, as an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of things that your hands are in. As I’ve grown and as the business has grown, I realize that I have to be more of an observer and listener, putting myself in the right places at the right time. It’s a mistake to try to put myself everywhere, all of the time.

One of my main jobs now is making sure the talent continues to flow into the company. Sometimes you just have to remind yourself to step back and let your people do the job. It’s stepping aside and allowing greatness to happen. When you have capable, talented people, you sometimes just need to say, “Don’t screw it up.”

And as it relates to the overall changemaker conversation, sometimes it’s not forcing the change all at once. It’s about having that persistence and resilience. You have to have good self-awareness.

How do you see Lifesprk changing even further moving forward? I know you raised your first Series A this year.

It’s not about raising the money. It’s not about having another badge on my chest. What’s happening for the future? What am I bullish on? I believe that Lifesprk has to continue to aggregate the most talented people in the world. People like Dr. Bill Thomas, our independence officer. People like Richard Leider. We have so many great people on our leadership team.

Now, when it comes to scale, I think we’ve gotten the model down, finally, after 15 years. I think the model is clear. And it’s not something we have to continue to reshape. Now we need to execute it. We’re looking to fuel that implementation and integration. We are going to raise capital to make sure that we don’t under-invest in the opportunity that we see. I could have, obviously raised money 10 years ago, five years ago, even at the very beginning. But I didn’t do it, because I wanted to have the creative freedom and control of Lifesprk.

We’re also betting big on analytics, data and information. We’re investing a lot in an electronic life record based on wellness. Not another medical record, but a life record that stays with a person through his or her entire life. It’s like a deeper EMR that, along with all the cost information, includes data on purpose, passion and identity. It includes a person’s plan, their goals, their wishes, and it tracks it and mines that wisdom to deliver much better value over time. Technology and tech enablement are a big part of our future.

What’s something you never want to change about Lifesprk or about yourself?

We’ve been successful. I could retire. I could sell the company, make a lot of money and go do the things that I like to do. But that’s not at all how I think. I don’t want to ever change by losing my passion. And that’s something I never want to see change about Lifesprk. The culture of the company is something that’s sacred. It would destroy me to see that culture, our collective passion for wellness, get destroyed, tainted or seduced.

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