Three years ago, Ellen Rudolph hit rock bottom with unexplainable, debilitating symptoms ranging from brain fog to gastrointestinal symptoms to fatigue, and got to the point where she was completely bedridden at 25 years old.
“In my desperation to find answers, I saw every “ologist” in the book — an endocrinologist, hematologist, rheumatologist, gynecologist, and cardiologist. During that process, doctor after doctor dismissed my symptoms, told me my labs looked normal and said there was nothing they could do for me,” she shares.
Her testimony was constantly questioned and she was continually dismissed as one of the “worried wells”, however, Rudolph trusted her body and knew that something was undoubtedly wrong. She admits she had never experienced anything in her life like the “bone-deep fatigue” she felt, with rashes, bloating, and tremors being physical manifestations that her body was battling something real. “I held on closely to every ounce of hope I had to find answers.”
After spending years ping-ponging from specialist to specialist, Rudolph received a lab result indicating she had a positive ANA, an anti-nuclear antibody, one of the leading indicators of autoimmune disease. It came with a mix of emotions – gratitude to finally have more concrete information, relief that there was really something wrong and she wasn’t “crazy”, and fear about what it meant for her future. “I wept in the subway car and vowed that this was the area I wanted to dedicate my life to once I got better. From there, I began to educate myself on what I was putting in and on my body, embracing using food as medicine and transforming my entire lifestyle,” shares Rudolph.
This experience has led Rudolph to start WellTheory – a company on a mission to support those living with autoimmunity and, in turn, reverse the autoimmune epidemic. “We’re doing it through a personalized, evidence-based approach to care. We’re identifying the root cause of autoimmune disorders – rather than prescribing band-aid fixes that mask symptoms – and treating the whole person, and doing this by combining food as medicine, community care, expert-led holistic health programs, and personalized health data insights. Our goal is to support anyone and everyone no matter where they are in their autoimmune journey.”
Today, the company announced its $7.2 million seed funding round led by Accel, with participation from Box Group, Lux Capital, Scribble Ventures, Rock Health, and the CEOs of Maven, Everlane, Pillpack, and more, also formally launching after operating in private beta for the last year, as explained by Rudolph.
“As a firm, we’ve been focused on several key themes emerging in healthcare – the unbundling of the primary care physician, consumers taking control of their own healthcare decisions, and the pandemic-spurred rapid rise of telehealth. WellTheory’s product and community sit at the intersection of all three, giving them the potential to help tens of millions of Americans searching to identify and reverse the root cause of autoimmunity, and saving payors billions of dollars in unnecessary spending,” shares Amy Saper, Partner at Accel, the lead investor in this funding round.
Shining A Light On Invisible Conditions
There are an estimated 50 million Americans suffering from autoimmune conditions, and the rates are on the rise. the number of people in the U.S. managing autoimmune disease has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Mounting research has identified the role environmental and lifestyle factors such as diet, toxins, stress, and viruses play in triggering autoimmunity.
This silent epidemic of invisible illnesses is often overshadowed by diseases that are better understood by medicine or are more ‘visible’. As a result, autoimmune patients are often marginalized, stigmatized, or unrecognized by the healthcare systems. Unfortunately, women largely bear the brunt of these systemic shortcomings – almost 80% of patients suffering from autoimmune diseases are women. Not to mention, certain ones affect people of color more dramatically as well — for example, Black women and Hispanic women are diagnosed with lupus at close to 3x the rate of non-Hispanic white women and have a mortality rate that is between 2-3x higher than that of white women.
“Sadly, it comes as no surprise that this is a women’s health crisis. Women continue to be overlooked in the medical system,” adds Rudolph.
According to a survey by the Autoimmune Diseases Association, it takes up to 4.6 years and nearly five doctor visits to receive a proper autoimmune disease diagnosis. 76% reported at least one misdiagnosis for symptoms subsequently attributed to their systemic autoimmune rheumatic disease.
A 360-Degree Approach To Care
Rudolph explains how she made it her mission to take a 360-degree approach to care aimed at reducing autoimmune symptoms for years to come. Each patient who signs up for the WellTheory platform has a dedicated care team that identifies, troubleshoots, and treats them through a holistic lens — from what their lifestyle looks like to what they eat and drink, how they manage stress, sleep routines, and more.
“Practitioners work collaboratively with members through goal-setting, ongoing education, continuous support through chat and live coaching sessions, and symptom tracking to identify areas of opportunity. Our members want and need a different approach, whether they’re bedridden and have hit rock bottom or trying to live their life but bracing for their next flare-up.”
It was important for her and her team to build WellTheory by autoimmune patients for autoimmune patients. Everyone on their team – including their practitioners, according to Rudolph, is deeply connected to autoimmune disease – most had it themselves. She adds how, the majority of their members, experience practitioner trust for the “first time with WellTheory and they’re no longer feeling overwhelmed with the analysis paralysis from Googling symptoms or medical gaslighting”.
As Rudolph highlighted several times during our conversation, clinical research and science-backed evidence are core to what they do and how they do it at WellTheory. Backed by peer-reviewed published papers and a decade of iterations, their initial science-backed program has been carefully developed over the past 10 years and has driven health outcomes to over 100+ cohorts with thousands of autoimmune patients so far.
“With these studies, we were trying to understand: can a dietary intervention make patients feel better and reduce inflammation? If so, how does it do that? My takeaway from the findings is that diet affects our bodies at multiple levels, including cellular expression, inflammation, microbiome, symptoms, nutritional status, and our overall wellness. What we know now is that we have to address our patients holistically, understanding not only their nutritional status and disease state but also what their individual needs and goals are in order to meet them where they’re at,” Gauree Konijeti, MD, one of the co-authors of the papers and IBD-related studies behind the WellTheory’s program, shares with me in an email.
Reversing The Autoimmune Epidemic
In her wish to educate as many people as possible about the realities of living with autoimmune disease, Rudolph began to share her health story publicly on TikTok in hope of helping others navigate their own health journey. One day, she went viral with a video talking about symptoms she was told were normal that were actually an autoimmune disease. “To my shock, 1.6 million people watched it, and as I sifted through thousands of comments, It was there that I realized just how underserved our community was and how desperately we needed better support and tools.”
Right now, the company is focused on directly serving its members, aiming to offer the most impactful and accessible paths for healing autoimmune disorders based on patients’ unique health goals. Looking further ahead, Rudolph’s plans are going big and opening up to businesses – employers, health plans, and other like-minded health organizations – to increase accessibility for more members. This way, the platform can directly help deliver better clinical outcomes, including decreasing drug reliance and high-cost interventions long term, improving workplace productivity, and easing the financial burden for payors and self-insured employers, alike. “It’s truly a win-win.”
“Reversing the autoimmune epidemic is bigger than us. WellTheory is exactly what I wish I had at the beginning of my health journey, and I hope it will empower so many others to take their health into their own hands. Women and minorities with autoimmune diseases have been told to suffer in silence for too long, and today is the day we get access to the care we’ve long deserved,” concludes Rudolph.