As a woman in her early 20s working and living in New York City, Carolyn Witte experienced first-hand just how broken the health-care system can be when it comes to addressing the health concerns and needs of women.
After going through a three-year long process of seeing various doctors before finally being diagnosed with a hormonal endocrine disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) at 25, Witte knew she had to do something to help other women have a more seamless experience with doctors and health-care providers.
In 2016, she quit her job as a team lead at Google's Creative Lab to focus full-time on building an innovative health-care platform for women called Tia, which Witte describes as an "ecosystem of products, tools and services designed for the distinct needs of women." Tia, officially launched in 2017 and was co-founded by Witte's college best friend Felicity Yost, who quit her job as a product manager at the internet company Owler to focus on their new startup.
In the beginning, Witte tells CNBC Make It, she and Yost wanted Tia to be a free information app "that was almost like a personalized WebMD for women's health" where users could type in concerns and questions about their health and receive a response from a health professional. But, after reviewing over 200,000 conversations with users within their first few months of business, the now 30-year-old founders quickly realized that not only did women turn to Tia for information and insight about their health, but they also wanted Tia to be their actual doctor.
So in 2019, Tia opened its first physical clinic in New York City, which now includes a team of 15 physicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, therapists and other health-care providers. In May 2020, the founders announced they had raised $24.275 million in funding, bringing their total amount of investor money to $32 million — all of which they plan to use to help them expand their services amid the pandemic.
Using her experience with design from Google and Yost's experience with technology, Witte says she and Yost wanted to build an app that was "the answer to Googling your health effectively."
"My approach was that to get women better health care, you first have to give them better health information," she says, while recalling her own horrible experience of receiving inadequate information and resources about her PCOS diagnosis from doctors. "So, that's what we built."
In the beginning, Witte says, she and Yost relied heavily on Instagram marketing, word-of-mouth from users and Google advertising to grow their customer-base. "We wanted to quite literally be the answer to Googling your health so what we did was we bought ads on Google and said, 'You know, someone's gonna say 'Google, I missed my birth control pill,' and if we buy ads we could intersect and guide them to Tia.'"
These marketing efforts eventually paid off with Tia receiving about 3,000 questions per day from users within their first few months of business. Without any experience or background in the health-care field themselves, Witte and Yost relied on their team of about four health educators who worked in clinics or for Planned Parenthood hotlines to help them provide responses to the health concerns and questions users had. Since these health educators were not actual doctors, Witte says she and Yost had to make it clear in the beginning that Tia was not an app that you could turn to for a diagnosis, but rather an app that you could turn to for information about symptoms and experiences you may be having.
"It was a very fine line because someone might ask a question like, 'Tia, what causes a UTI?' And then someone else might ask, 'Do I have a UTI,'" she says, while explaining that the app would only provide an answer around the causes for a urinary tract infection, but would never confirm with a user that they actually have it. "So that was a fine line that we had to walk, which led us to actually evolve and hire doctors onto Tia who could actually deliver health care in clinic and virtually."
To date, Tia has one brick-and-mortar location in New York City that serves 3,000 female patients who are looking for a one-stop shop to see a primary care doctor, a OB-GYN, a mental health therapist and other health experts who can service their needs.
"When we opened the Tia clinic, the premise was to take all these different specialists that don't typically work together and bring them together, not just under one roof, but to work together in an integrative model to deliver what we describe as 'whole women's healthcare,'" Witte says. "So whether you have a UTI, or pelvic pain, or want an IUD, or have repeated migraines, or have PCOS like I do, or struggle with infertility or have a thyroid condition, Tia is your medical home."
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Witte and Yost decided that it was in the best interest of their staff and patients to close their New York City clinic temporarily and ramp up the virtual care services they offered online.
"We did not have to close because we're not a restaurant or a yoga studio," says Witte, while adding that Tia re-opened its physical location on June 1. She says their decision to close was made in an effort to protect the safety of their patients and providers since there was a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers.
As a result, Tia started to offer Covid-related care services, gynecology services and primary care services virtually so that patients who were used to visiting their physical location could still receive comprehensive care. These services include a coronavirus risk assessment where you can talk to a doctor virtually about your symptoms if you think you've been exposed to the virus, a virtual assessment if you feel like you have the cold or flu, a UTI, a STD, a vaginal infection and a host of other health concerns.
"The response has been really profound," Witte says, while adding that 50% of their 3,000 members were using some form of their virtual care services in the first 90 days of them closing their clinic.
As the platform continues to expand in its services and reach, Witte says they have maintained a no-cost charge for the "tens of thousands" of users who continue to use their app across the country. But, for users who take advantage of Tia's virtual health-care services, membership comes with a fee of $15 per month or $150 per year. This fee is separate from the co-pays and other service fees you pay, depending on your insurance, when you have an in-person visit with a Tia doctor.
Witte says she and Yost's ability to successfully scale their startup over the last three years has played a key role in them securing more than $24 million in funding earlier this year.
"We were able to fundraise on not just a vision, but a working model," says Witte. "Oftentimes people say women have to prove more, well we had a lot of proof that our model was really working. And ultimately, we were looking for investors who believed in the long-term vision for Tia care and who knew that we weren't just a really cool clinic with, you know, cool looking waiting rooms and a millennial app, but we were really transforming the way healthcare was delivered at scale, and that we were the women to do it."
Tia's latest round of funding was led by Threshold Ventures with participation from Define Ventures, ACME, Torch Capital, John Doerr, Homebrew and Compound. Threshold's managing partner Emily Melton and Define's founder and managing partner Lynne Chou O'Keefe also joined Tia's all-female board of directors.
With this new capital, Witte says Tia plans to expand its virtual services and its brick-and-mortar locations, as well as expand the support they offer women throughout their reproductive life, "which means getting into prenatal, postpartum, and obstetrical care to guide women through the pregnancy journey."