Office Hours: Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen on Changing How Type 2 Diabetes Is Perceived and Treated

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen
Image courtesy Virta Health

Sami Inkinen’s first taste of entrepreneurship was running an online bulletin board system from a farm in Finland.

On this episode of Office Hours, the Virta Health founder and CEO joins host Spencer Rascoff to discuss how to find a compatible co-founder and how his own health scare inspired his latest company.

Since his days in Finland, Inkinen co-founded the online real estate marketplace Trulia, where he served as COO, president and board member before selling the company to the Zillow Group. He founded Virta Health, a company dedicated to surgery-free Type 2 diabetes reversal, in 2014. Now, Virta Health has raised $360 million in equity capital, employs 500 people and boasts 300 enterprise clients.

But, before his entrepreneurial success, Inkinen had to get to America.

“I was entrepreneurially minded, and I was like ‘I just absolutely have to get to Silicon Valley’,” Inkinen said. “That is the NHL of entrepreneurs.”

He applied to Stanford University’s Master of Business Administration program and got in. While there, he met Pete Flint, and the two began to brainstorm what kind of business they wanted to create.

“We both became convinced—it wasn't really a leap of faith—that over the next decade, consumer internet will completely transform residential real estate,” he said.

The pair co-founded Trulia in 2004, and Inkinen said they were able to capitalize on the surging power of the internet at that specific moment. Figuring out SEO early on also helped Trulia reach potential users. But part of Trulia’s success is also due to Inkinen and Flint’s dedication to being good co-founders. Inkinen said their shared personal interests aided that dedication.

“I might compare it to literally finding a life partner,” Inkinen said.

These days, Inkinen has pivoted to health care. He was inspired to commit himself to another startup while rowing 2700 miles from Monterey, CA to Hawaii. But what spurred his interest in diabetes, specifically, was his own health. When he learned that he was pre-diabetic and on his way to Type 2 diabetes, he was shocked, as he considers himself an athlete.

“All my expectations about why people have Type 2 diabetes were completely wrong,” he said. And the more he learned about the issue, the more he realized there was an opportunity. “There is a key to unlock this whole thing, not just to myself, but potentially hundreds of millions of other people.”

After talking to several doctors to understand the space better, he founded Virta Health, which seeks to help patients "reverse" Type 2 diabetes.

“The keyword is the reverse,” he said, “because traditionally, it is treated with medications. You go on insulin, and you try to control your blood sugar. And so we nutritionally reverse Type 2 diabetes and provide the support by medical doctors — through the telemedicine platform — to get people off the medications and make sure it's safe.”

The process is a combination of AI software that measures users’ biometric data and intensive one-on-one support. Virta Health’s care team works with individuals three times a day to guide them through beneficial behavioral changes. Doctors supervise and determine how and when to pull people off of medications like insulin.

“So it's a combination of those two things: the tricks and protocols to behavior change. And [the] telemedicine approach, that very intensive support to enable [it],” he said.

Scaling a company like Virta Health can be challenging, as Inkinen said fear that reversing Type 2 diabetes won’t be successful. But for Inkinen, seeing how his company has helped others is gratifying.

“Now, seeing our patients literally taking this work of our company as a permanent tattoo on their bodies after reversing their Type 2 diabetes, it just gives me shivers,” Inkinen said.

Disclaimer: Spencer Rascoff is an investor in Virta Health. reporter Kristin Snyder contributed to this post.

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