With another $6M, Glow is Max Levchin's Trojan Horse to remake American healthcare

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 8, 2013

From The News Desk

There's news today that Glow has raised $6 million, but frankly, that's the least interesting thing about the company.

Nothing about this round is a surprise. Max Levchin is known as one of the most intense, hardworking entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and has returned money to investors twice -- even if his second company, Slide, didn't live up to expectations. He's returned capital three times if you count Yelp, which was the other company that grew out of his first incubator.

In addition, Glow is going after a big market. It's a bonafide big data play, not just a startup that throws that term around. Levchin has also backed it with his own money as well -- always an encouraging sign to investors. And $6 million isn't that much for a project this ambitious. To boot, one of the main investors is Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. Thiel and Levchin were co-founders at PayPal. More of the mafia at work. (Disclosure: Founders Fund is also an investor in PandoDaily.)

To wit: Levchin had already told his friends at Founders Fund he wanted to go after the dysfunction of the healthcare market. Partner Brian Singerman said, "I'm writing you a check, man."

Levchin replied, "I'm not raising money."

To which Singerman said, "I don't care."

"He was like the proverbial ambulance chaser," Levchin says of the exchange.

So of course Levchin managed to raise $6 million. Yawn.

Much more interesting is the backstory of Glow and how Levchin hopes it'll leverage the budding quantified self movement to change healthcare and insurance the way PayPal changed payments. When I talked to Levchin and his co-founder Mike Huang for several hours earlier this week, I brought up how many entrepreneurs have cited the huge economics (17.2 percent of the GDP) and obvious dysfunction of the healthcare space... months or years before they go out of business trying to change it.

"Doesn't that worry you?" I asked.

"Are you kidding me?" Levchin answered. "I'm terrified." Then again, his backers will note, he helped do it with PayPal, and you could say the same of the payments space.

Of course, it was a different time in the Web, and it was a different Max Levchin back then. He didn't even know what a chargeback was when he started out. "Fast-forward 12 months and we're negative $77 million," he says.

PayPal was one of those times when a bunch of smart mathematicians and Libertarians ran up against a brick wall with all of their might to see if it'd give, and -- perhaps miraculously -- it did. This time there's another brick wall, Levchin says, but he's being a bit more thoughtful about how he breaks through it. Just as that wall gave before because of an unstoppable wave of ecommerce that needed a new payments solution, so too does Levchin believe there's an unstoppable wave of healthcare costs, dysfunction, and devices that are encouraging people to take charge of their own health in ways they haven't before.

He believes the quantified self movement -- which we're only seeing the beginnings of with devices like the Fitbit, UP, and Nike Fuel -- is going to transfer the habits of elite athletes onto everyday people. Levchin is an avid cyclist and the kind of person who measures and charts everything. He knows his precise heart rate during a race because of a clumsy, intrusive contraption he wears. Everyday people won't do that, he says. And even things like the UP band are still too sporty for a lot of them. "It's a lovely color, but you're still wearing a micro-jack on your arm," he says, pointing to my UP band. "That's nerdy."

Levchin sees a world where these devices are woven into otherwise hip clothes and accessories. He's describing the Tesla of the quantified self movement, if you will. Just as people wanted Tesla's because they were sexy sports cars, whether they cared about the environment or not, Levchin believes you wear future devices, because they are awesome, or simply invisible.

Passive tracking is an important part to this becoming mainstream. Even the biggest data nerds won't log what they had to eat everyday for forever. It's typically a stop gap to reaching a short term fitness goal. You aren't going to log your vitals to ward off a future risk of disease you may not even know you are predisposed to get. Particularly since right now insurance only punishes you for things you may know about yourself.

If tracking yourself is passive and ubiquitous, Levchin sees a world of real rewards to encourage behavior. Imagine: You get an extra vacation day from your employer if you log 10,000 steps per day. The incentive makes sense for the same reason healthcare plans have other fitness incentives: A healthy workforce saves money on insurance costs.

This is the world Levchin is building Glow to anticipate and help bring about.

So why fertility? It came up almost by chance, Levchin says. They were looking for an area that's under-insured, where there are serious circumstances if it fails, but at the same time where they wouldn't be playing with people's lives. During a brainstorming day, Levchin was on his way to the bathroom when he turned to the team and asked, "Does anyone know if fertility treatments are insured?" By the time he got back, the team was having a "holy shit" moment.

It should have, perhaps, been a more obvious vertical for Levchin, but especially for Huang. Huang came from Slide as well, and the last time I saw him was at Levchin's wedding. We were all dancing to an 80s cover band, and Huang's wife was pregnant with their daughter. That daughter was the precious result of tens of thousands of dollars of out of pocket treatments, he says.

Since then, Levchin has had two children that didn't require any treatments to produce, but changed his life nonetheless. As he said when he demoed Glow at D earlier this year, part of what made him want to pursue this company was the idea that everyone should be able to have that kind of love in their life. "I'm the world's least emotional person, and last night I was watching this grainy video of my kids dancing to horrible music in a restaurant, and I started to tear up," Levchin says. "The Max of 10 years ago would have snorted at that and gone back to coding."

"Insurance doesn't cover this, because it's optional," Huang says. "But look at the pictures of your kids on your phone, and you tell me if having them in your life is optional."

Such stakes are why Huang and Levchin are betting women will be willing to over-track and over-share everything going on. If you look at fertility message boards, they already border on TMI. Beta testers have been happy to log details about their cycle and cervical mucous but also sexual position and whether or not they had an orgasm or experienced pain or discomfort.

These are all important determiners in what could be going wrong. But it's also far more personal data than Facebook knows about you. Think about it: If you are a Glow user, Max Levchin knows what you did last night and in what position you did it. On a level, that's weird. But it's data that women are willing to give, because they are getting something so much greater. (Also, it should be noted, the repercussions are very different. Glow isn't exactly sharing it with your friends or advertisers.) If anything beta testers have asked them for more fields to enter data, Huang says.

It's also data that doctors aren't tracking, in many cases. Anonymized data on some of this information could actually help prove or disprove old wives tales about how to best conceive. That's a big reason fertility doctors are interested in working with Glow, Levchin says.

Over my two-hour meeting with Huang and Levchin, we couldn't keep from lapsing into stories about our kids. That demonstrates a big reason they're so excited about this idea, and, as a reporter, why I am too. The best companies are always outgrowths of founders' emotional experiences.

And Glow is as much a reaction to Huang's experiences with fertility and Levchin's experiences being a father, as it is a reaction to what happened with Slide.

I spent more than a year following Levchin in the early days of Slide along with the founders of Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and others, so I'm, if anything, all too familiar with the angst that went into building Slide. Levchin went through a year of depression in between PayPal and Slide, where he felt enormous pressure to do something as big and do it as the CEO. This time he says he knew to "avoid the whole year of darkness thing." His kids also helped him through the transition. He also realized that he doesn't want to be a CEO running the company day-to-day. That's Huang's job this time. His role is closer to what he did at Yelp, or to what Reid Hoffman does for LinkedIn.

Slide was always a bizarre fit, given Levchin's mathematical and big data intensity, but the journey was partially about him learning something new. It was his wife who told him, after Slide, to go back to his strengths, if he wanted to really build something that could change the world. (Something I also noted he was doing when he launched Glow at D.)

"I was having fun building Slide, but I remember having to justify Slide to you, to [my wife] Nellie, to the team," he says. "There is one line in your book where you said, 'Slide is a bit harder to explain' and when I read that I was like, 'Ugh, she's right.'" He does a "I should have had a V8" head-slap when he describes the moment.

"Slide was a giant intellectual puzzle I was trying to solve," he continues. "Glow is easy to explain. I wanted my next company to have an easy to explain one-liner with a lot of impact. I always tried to find it with Slide. The best I got was that playing games helped you put worries or your mortality aside for a little while, but games are inherently temporary. That's the reason there's no footprint of Slide left. Glow is the very opposite. The only permanent thing we have to leave after us are children. It's really rewarding."

Also this: Levchin repeatedly said his goal with Slide was to build something that would exit for more than $1.5 billion. He didn't. Although previous members of the PayPal mafia have hit his goal instead, including Hoffman with LinkedIn, Jeremy Stoppelman with Yelp, and Chad Hurley and Steve Chen with YouTube. Somehow, that failure seems to have freed him from such a crass way of keeping score. His new goal with Glow is very different: "Our goal is to be the most loved company in the world."

The Max Levchin of 10 years ago probably would have snorted at that too and gone back to coding. But the Max Levchin of today just might build a more significant company than that guy.