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Food as a medicine: a conversation with Elo Health CEO, Ari Tulla

This episode of the Venari Podcast’s HealthTech CEO series touches on various timely issues

We’re used to the idea of food as sustenance, as well as something to enjoy and savour. But food as medicine might be a relatively new concept for you – unless your name is Ari Tulla. The CEO and founder of Elo Health is on a mission to transform food from being the cause of disease to medicine, using biomarkers and cutting-edge AI – as well as expert guidance – to calibrate dietary supplements for unique needs. Yet, as Ari told our Digital Health Consultant, Cristian Owen, in this episode of the Venari Podcast’s HealthTech CEO series, the motivation to start Elo was rooted in a deeply personal experience.


 



 

From health problems to founding a company

Ari is a self-described ‘techie’ who has been using computers since his childhood in the 1980s. He switched his attention to digital health from developing video games and apps in the wake of his wife’s struggles with a thyroid tumour. She was first diagnosed some 20 years ago, and although she had the tumour removed, it caused a series of further complications including autoimmune disease and hormonal imbalances. ‘We pedalled about a decade to fix the issues,’ Ari recalls. ‘We used western medicine, eastern medicine. And in the end, diet and nutrition was one of the key pieces in the puzzle to help her body heal itself.’ They were told they would never have a family, but now Ari and his wife have ‘two beautiful children [...] So I became a massive believer in nutrition, in the power of discipline and lifestyle changes.’ The whole process taught Ari a lot about healthcare systems in Europe and the U.S. and reaffirmed to him the value of helping people to build new companies in the healthcare space – ‘something meaningful that can help people’s lives’, rather than just attempting to create the next Twitter.


The role of AI

AI is central to Elo’s approach – and in contrast to various hot topics of yesteryear like cryptocurrency or NFTs, Ari firmly believes that artificial intelligence is not just here to stay, but will fundamentally change how we live our lives. (He goes so far as to compare it to the discovery of fire or the wheel, calling AI ‘one of those four or five big things that happened to humanity’.) Elo are seeking to use it to build a system that will deliver personalised, necessary nutritional advice to the right person at the right time. Body assessments are conducted from biomarkers, blood testing, and even wearable devices. Doctors will then conduct tests based on questionnaires before the information is fed into an AI model for the final nutrition plan. Ari notes that Elo also provides dieticians to give one-to-one guidance, though the company’s aim is ‘to give you the nutrition and send it to you onto your kitchen counter directly, automatically. And I hope in the future that we also can deliver meals and groceries that are made for you based on who you are, what your body is telling us.’


Tackling healthcare crises

Life expectancy in the U.S. has been dropping steadily in recent years – which Ari admits is ‘not a very positive topic to talk about.’ Still, such decreases tend to be associated with cataclysmic events like the Black Death or World War Two – and the effects are even more severe among minority groups such as Native Americans and African Americans. By contrast, Japan’s life expectancy is now 85: a significant difference compared to what the average American can hope for. A number of factors may have had an influence on the declining American life expectancy, though Ari believes that lifestyle and diet have a large bearing as well. Over two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese; the obesity rate in Japan, meanwhile, is around 4%. ‘The diet in Japan is very different to what we have here in the U.S.’ Ari notes. ‘We have to change the way we feed people and how we eat.’ Ari believes that attitudes to sleep and exercise also need to change, in addition to how we think of or approach obesity. ‘We often say if somebody is obese, it’s their fault. No, obesity is a lot like a mental health or health condition [...] We have to find better treatments and help people before they are sick. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my company today’.


The need for action

Finding society-wide solutions might be expensive, though for Ari the cost-benefit analysis more than justifies this. He hopes that AI will help to make treatment more accessible and affordable, as well as break the pattern of resistance to behavioural change. So often, he says, existing paradigms, and the lack of support they contain, impede people from making meaningful, lasting differences to their lives. Ideally, we would spend the same amount of time – ‘a hundred hours-plus a year’ – with doctors and healthcare clinicians as with a personal trainer, nurse or nutritionist, which Ari recognises are not affordable for many people in the first instance. ‘But in the next few years, I think we will all have a bot of some type. It could be a nurse bot, it could be a nutrition bot, it could be even a doctor [...] And that, I think, will really change the way people live.’ Not only would such solutions be more economical and practical – he believes that many people would be more willing to speak openly with an AI than with a random healthcare worker. Whatever about wider concerns about the impact of AI on society, ‘in this instance, I think it can really help people to change their behaviour and get healthier.’


Ari recognises that many companies in the nutrition and healthcare space will adopt specialised angles for their offerings – and where Elo are looking to advance is in offering more real-time support. Dietitians assigned to you might not be available, for example, during the night; ‘I think the difference in this instance,’ says Ari, ‘is that if the AI can talk to you then and there and have a back-and-forth conversation when you need the support, that has a big difference’. The dialogue has the potential to go much deeper much faster – all the more necessary, in Ari’s view, for tackling such urgent healthcare crises as we face today.


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