As the first day of summer approaches, there’s excitement everywhere—especially for those outdoorsy types always in search of adventure. But outdoor activities carry risks, especially with the growing concern around disease-carrying insects. The CDC estimates that around 300,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Lyme disease per year
from tick bites.
One of those people is Dr. Bill Rawls, an OBGYN in Raleigh who began to suffer from the effects of Lyme disease after a struggle with fibromyalgia in his mid 40s. By taking matters into his own hands and searching for treatments beyond conventional healing methods, he found that natural approaches to healthy living worked.
Since then, Dr. Rawls has built Vital Plan
, an online program that lays out his own steps toward wellness for others suffering from chronic illnesses. Within the past year, the business has jumped from three to 11 employees and quadrupled its revenue.
Last fall, the company participated in a six-month B Corporation Clinic
launched by HQ Raleigh and the North Carolina State Business Sustainability Collaborative. Vital Plan was one of the first companies to graduate and is now certified as one of eight B Corps in the global herbal supplement industry.
The new designation is a step toward building transparency into the supplement industry, as well as getting more investors and fellow startups to join the fight against debilitating chronic illnesses like Lyme disease. Vital Plan has achieved some of this—it won John Replogle
, CEO of Seventh Generation
, as an advisor and investor.
A growing industry
Vital Plan CEO Braden Rawls, who co-founded the venture with her dad, says the long-term goal of the Vital Plan program is instilling upon customers a new approach to their health via natural therapies and lifestyle changes, in order to get them to the point where their immune systems can combat the disease independently.
For example, Vital Plan offers an herbal blend that calms stress and helps customers focus, a capsule of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that reduce inflammation and support the heart, and a probiotic for digestion. There's a detailed protocol by Dr. Rawls for treating chronic disease and other content associated with diseases like Fibromyalgia and Lyme disease along with conditions like sleeplessness, PMS and memory loss.
The startup sprung up at an ideal time in the online supplement market. According to IBISWorld, the industry has consistently spiked in the past five years and now—with few barriers to entry—it's forecasted to keep growing
alongside the growth of health-driven thinkers. It's a $1 billion industry.
But Vital Plan goes beyond typical online supplement sales with its comprehensive wellness approach.
The Restore Program
includes a six-month online wellness course, progress trackers, a diet guide with recipes, resources and support from the Vital Plan team, Dr. Rawls’ book, Suffered Long Enough
, and supplements that can treat a wide range of symptoms from digestion issues to memory loss. Especially with plans to bring in a fresh round of funding this fall, Rawls hopes that Vital Plan will begin to partner with healthcare providers in 2017 to work hand-in-hand with diagnostic companies and physicians within the medical system.
“We don’t want to be the diagnostic arm or the treatment arm, but we want to be the wellness arm,” she says.
A customer focus
Another ambitious goal is to improve customer experience, with an ongoing advisory board that consists of people who’ve been through the program and want to share opinions about its pros and cons.
Kim Sanderman, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, serves as one of the board’s members. She compares Vital Plan to a life raft, one that helped her escape the sense of fear accompanying Fibromyalgia symptoms such as sleeplessness, nervous system dysfunction and low energy.
Within eight months of the program, her symptoms improved dramatically. She wanted to help others achieve the same success. She says the customer advisory board is a reflection of Vital Plan’s interest in making changes for the better, based on sufferers' feedback.
Also on the advisory board is Pam Reichert, a Charlotte blogger. When she first tested positive for two bands of Lyme disease, she searched the Internet to find ways to treat some of her symptoms, which included serious cognitive dysfunction and fatigue. That’s when she came across Dr. Rawls’ book and bought it. After reading his words, she drove five hours to see him and learn more about how herbal medicine works. She then enrolled in the program for a four-month trial to see if she’d make progress.
She says she still has symptoms, but she’s able to function better than before with more energy.
In addition to being on the advisory board, Reichert formed a Facebook group for Vital Plan customers or anyone who wanted to know more about the program.
“It’s another way to give support to each other,” she says.
Dr. Larry Dunn
is another user who got a lot out of the program. He has a doctorate in physics and works as the industrial liaison officer for NASCENT
—a nanotechnology center out of the University of Texas at Austin.
He says what Vital Plan is doing is important in the face of medical uncertainty regarding the diagnosis and treatment Lyme disease, referring to the illness’ affects on the immune system as “what can be a slow burning, long-term infection in the body.”
Dr. Dunn credits Vital Plan with helping in his own recovery from the disease and adds, “I cannot say enough good things about them.”
B Corp status pushes change in $1B industry
B Corp status is a fit for Vital Plan because it operates in an industry that is often hyperbolic about program benefits but sometimes void of hard data. Along with every supplement description online is a detailed list of ingredients and an "honest labeling" section that also explains the manufacturing process and provides references to back up the formulations.
In a news release about the B Corp certification, Braden Rawls wrote:
“Being able to showcase our commitment to doing business with integrity has been valuable in gaining new customers and recruiting talent. From the start, our goal has been to empower everyone that our organization touches to become more proactive about their health and mindful of the way they live. B Corp gives us a framework to support this mission and put best practices in place to grow our company in a smart, sustainable way.”