Collaboration Key to Tysons-Headquartered Somatus’ Success

Rapidly growing Tysons-based Somatus, established in 2016, leads as the highest-valued unicorn in Northern Virginia, according to CBInsights. A unicorn is a privately held startup company with a valuation of $1 billion or more.

We sat down with Somatus Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Ikenna Okezie; Deputy Chief Medical Officer and practicing nephrologist Dr. Bassem Mikhael; Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff Derek Kung; and Chief Legal Officer Alicia Palmer—all Northern Virginia residents—for a conversation about launching the company, its growth, use of innovative technology, and why Fairfax County is a great place for the company’s headquarters.

Co-founded by Dr. Ikenna Okezie and Anthony Welters, Somatus, a value-based care company committed to driving greater health equity and access to high quality care, partners with nephrology, cardiology and primary care groups, leading health plans, and health systems to provide integrated care for patients with, or at risk of developing, kidney disease, congestive heart failure, and their related comorbid conditions. Somatus’ vertically integrated clinical services and technologies delay or prevent disease progression, improve quality and care coordination, and increase the use of home dialysis modalities and rates of kidney transplantation for a historically underserved population.

Currently Somatus is operating in 34 states, with more than 1,200 employees, and will care for more than 160,000 lives in 2024.

Born in Nigeria and raised in Detroit and Chicago, Dr. Okezie graduated from Yale University with a BA in Economics, and Harvard with a dual MD and MBA in Finance and Entrepreneurship.

Dr. Okezie’s focus on kidney care began when he joined DaVita Kidney Care, where he ran the Mid-Atlantic Market, from 2010 to 2015. After leaving DaVita, he teamed up with Anthony Welters, a Tysons-based attorney, investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist to start Somatus to make high-quality care accessible to more people who needed it.

“I wanted to start a business that focused on delaying kidney disease progression and keeping people as healthy as possible,” Dr. Okezie explained.

A Mission that has Grown to Help More Patients

People living with a high acuity condition like chronic kidney disease experience a significant health burden that can be compounded by health inequities and lack of access to high quality treatment options. Somatus was founded to address that and drive meaningful change.

In the U.S., African American people represent roughly 13 percent of the United States population but make up 35 percent of people with kidney failure. In healthcare there are many disparities, but this is a particularly stark disparity,” said Dr. Okezie.

“Adding to that, close to 43 percent of the patients we care for are Black, Indigenous, People of Color,” he added.

A variety of factors have led to this disparity, according to Dr. Okezie, including where someone lives. In some locations a person may not have access to organic whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and may instead eat food that is very processed, with high cholesterol and fat, leading to an increased risk of health problems, including kidney disease.

Over time, Somatus’ mission and focus have expanded.

“People living with kidney disease often need help managing other conditions,” Dr. Okezie shared. “The prevalence of comorbid conditions like congestive heart failure, diabetes, and hypertension is very high among patients with kidney disease. At Somatus, we are committed to treating the whole-patient, and connecting patients with the necessary providers and specialists to optimally deliver care that achieves the best outcomes for patients and their families.”

Dr. Okezie with Somatus’ locally based inpatient dialysis team (Somatus photo)

Fairfax County: Ideal Location for Somatus HQ

Fairfax County is an ideal location for Somatus’ headquarters, according to their Chief Legal Officer Alicia Palmer, a local resident for over 30 years.

“There is a lot of talent in this market, including fantastic nurses, nurse practitioners, patient health advocates, social workers, dietitians, and strong leaders in business. It’s not surprising, as Fairfax is a great place to live and work and offers great schools, public transportation, and two nearby international airports,” Palmer said.

Technology Key to Somatus’ Business Model

Today, Somatus partners with health plans and other organizations and their in-network providers to deliver its proven, whole-person care model to patients across the country. To do this, Somatus employs healthcare and business professionals but also machine learning engineers, data scientists. Somatus’ Deputy Chief Medical Officer and practicing nephrologist Dr. Bassem Mikhael, and Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff, Derek Kung, highlighted the talent behind the company’s innovative model and its use of innovative technologies, including Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

“Patients with kidney disease have complex needs,” Dr. Mikhael explained. “Delivering the right interventions earlier in the course of the disease is an important lever to delay kidney disease progression and improve patients’ quality of life and health outcomes.”

Kung added, “Somatus has brought together an innovative and talented team of data scientists and machine learning and analytics engineers—a number from the DMV area—to build an AI-driven, predictive platform that helps us identify the patients who need our services and deliver the right intervention at the right time.”

Somatus’ model succeeds through a patient-focused approach that partners closely with the patients’ providers, specialists, and caregivers.

“We assign multidisciplinary care teams to care for patients. We have nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers, dietitians, and others who go into patients’ homes and work directly with patients and their caregivers,” Dr. Mikhael shared. “Our care teams work in tandem with and as an extension of each patients’ nephrologist, cardiologist, primary care physician or other physicians, to deliver and coordinate patient-centered care wherever the patients are.”

In addition, Somatus utilizes technology so that patients can take an active role in their own care, including being able to monitor their laboratory data, as well as interact with their caregivers, physicians, and with other kidney care patients.

With its focus on value-based care, financial outcomes are aligned with improved health outcomes which results in higher patient quality and lower overall costs, Dr. Okezie, emphasized.

“Providers are incentivized for the quality of care they deliver, not by the number of visits or services they offer. When health plans partner with Somatus to help their members, there is no financial cost outlay by the patient—an important benefit which helps the populations we serve focus on improving their care journey,” Dr. Okezie shared. “Somatus provides services across the full range of membership plans, including Medicare Advantage, Medicare Advantage chronic special needs plans, dual special needs plans, ACA and employer group plans, and other product lines to provide care to patients and families in need. We have also partnered with nephrologists to bring the value-based outcome model to traditional Medicare through our participation in the Kidney Care Choices model, a government program designed to increase focus on improved health outcomes—rather than volume of services—for Medicare patients.”

Keys to Somatus’ Rapid Growth and Investment

Since its founding, Somatus has secured new capital from investors and notable healthcare market deals. In November 2021, entered into a strategic partnership with Anthem (now known as Elevance) announced to expand its geographic footprint to 34 states and increase its kidney care lives under management to, at the time, more than 150,000. In that same year, Somatus raised over $325 million in a Series E funding round leading to its valuation topping $2.5 billion.

Asked about Somatus’ rapid growth and ability to have attracted major investments, Dr. Okezie replied:

“We have been able to successfully scale our model, replicating it with multiple health plan partners, across the country, with thousands of patients. That has resulted in significant benefit to our health plan partners, our physician partners, and to our investors. While we’re thrilled our valuation continues to increase as we scale, we know our success is appropriately based on the fundamental principle that we succeed when our patients’ health outcomes improve. That’s why we’re focused on delivering exceptional individual patient experiences, and we have an amazing team anchored here in Northern Virginia committed to driving meaningful change.”

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