Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We caught up with Napala Pratini, co-founder at Habitual, which delivers digital therapeutics combined with a nutrition treatment to help people reverse type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Napala: I’m Napala, one of the co-founders at Habitual, and my background is in start-up growth and marketing. I’ve been working with start-ups of all shapes and sizes for the past 9 years. I studied biochemistry as an undergrad, all along wanting to go to medical school, but ultimately decided that in the US, where I am from, it takes far too long and is far too expensive. So, I got my first job in a start-up and just fell in love with the growth journey there. I always wanted to start my own business but never had the right alignment of time, place, co-founder, idea, and financial stability (at least just enough to forego a salary for long enough to start a business!). I came to the UK about 5 years ago and did an MBA at Oxford, after which I moved to London and was hired at a diabetes reversal research company, which is where I met my co-founder, Dr Ian Braithwaite. Ian attended medical school and had worked for many years as an A&E Doctor but had also done an MBA with the idea of transitioning into healthtech. We both felt the same about being a doctor; that the impact you can have on an individual’s life as a doctor can be huge, but the reach of your impact it is limited by the number of patients you can see a day. We recognised that technology companies have the potential to effect an infinitely bigger impact as you can reach so many more people, which is where the idea of Habitual came from.
To put what we do simply; Over the course of 6 months we help people reverse the underlying disease process of type 2 diabetes—that is, we help them lose enough weight to also reduce the fat accumulation in the liver and pancreas which prevents effective blood glucose regulation. Our programme helps people to lose an average of 15kg over the course of 3 months, which research shows is the average amount of weight loss necessary to put type 2 diabetes into remission. This process itself is not unique—there are companies out there that do total diet replacement (which is what the nutritional intervention that we use is called. Where we differ is in our focus on digital behavioural change that goes alongside total diet replacement. We have always believed that we can build a product that addresses the underlying behaviours behind eating, exercise, and relationships with food that is entirely digital, therefore reaching infinitely more people than you could ever do as a clinician. Our digital product goes alongside our total diet replacement programme, making it overall not about the diet, but about changing behaviours.
We started Habitual two years ago and have raised angel, pre-seed and seed funding, which was a fun journey of fundraising for 18 months—and we are really lucky to have some great investors on board. We are currently a 13-person team, so small but growing.
Napala: My co-founder and I met working for the company that was helping to deliver the DiRECT Trail, which is one of the world’s leading type 2 diabetes remission trials. That and similar trials showed, for the first time on a large scale, that 45-60% of people could reverse type 2 diabetes when offered appropriate dietary and lifestyle interventions. When we looked at what was done in the trials—face-to-face clinic appointments along with paper booklets and diet replacement—we realised that there was such an opportunity to build a much more digital, more scalable version. We even ran the numbers to confirm that the problem was simply too big to address using analogue tools. When we saw that nobody was doing translating the research into a scalable version to reach the millions of people with type 2 diabetes who could benefit, we left to start building Habitual.
Napala: Hiring is hard—I’m sure that everybody trying to grow their team has experienced this. What we have seen work well is hiring people not necessarily from our own network but those who really appreciate, and are bought into, the values that we have set as a team. We did a team ‘mission, vision, and values’ workshop with an external facilitator that felt a bit frivolous at the time but actually helped to crystallise a lot of the team values. This helped with the hiring process because it gave us tangible criteria to evaluate candidates against rather than just going with ‘gut feel’.
The other thing I would advise it to understand that hiring is going to take a lot of your time. It is important to recognise that although it may not seem like the most important thing on your to-do list, it needs to be managed as a priority.
Napala: We have made significant efforts from day one to build a product that is not only user tested, but actually built alongside our users. We are really lucky to be young, healthy people mostly living in London, whilst most of our users, or patients, are people with type 2 diabetes between 40 and 70 and living all over the country—so we are aware that how we think, act, and interact with digital products is veryare different from our patients. The very first thing we did was build an MVP on email and Airtable, which we launched with a 30-patient beta. We paid for these patients’ food throughout the programme and in exchange asked for daily feedback on the journey they were going through—meaning we got patient feedback on every single day of the whole 6 month journey. Now that we’ve launched to the public and have an app, we have much more fast and iterative cycles doing extensive user testing on each new feature that new build.
Napala: We have a total diet replacement product which goes alongside our app and the physical supply chain has been quite burdensome. As we aren’t just an app company, we are also a food company, there is a regulation piece and a global supply chain to manage. This has made the marketing of our product much harder because we have to turn marketing on and off in response to supply chain issues. We anticipated the design of our app to be the biggest challenge – as we need this app to instigate behavioural changes in people who may have been behaving in a certain way for years – but the supply chain side has been more challenging that we initially thought.
Napala: The most important thing I would say it that you really need to have a sense of humour about it because going for investment is really hard. There will be many rejections, and it’s so important not to take it personally. Having a sense of humour about it is what got my co-founder and I through, being able to laugh about even the bad calls.