Larry’s vision for Convergency followed his experiences as a senior executive at two leading mission-driven organizations. At Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), one of the nation’s most successful and active patient advocacy and research organizations, Larry built an advocacy program that was cited by the media as among the most powerful in Washington DC. Larry chaired the successful national campaign to advance stem cell research, and he secured more than $2 billion in mandatory federal diabetes funding, the only disease area to get such funding. He went on to serve as Chief Operating Officer with oversight responsibility for most major activities within the organization. Following his time at JDRF, Larry served as CEO for the Partnership for a Healthier America, where he worked with PHA Honorary Chair Michelle Obama and PHA Vice Chairs Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) on corporate partnerships that produced win/win outcomes for both public health and company brands and budgets. Larry developed more than 250 such partnerships and raised more than $60 million during his time at PHA.

Interview with Larry Soler

“I’m here because I’m excited about it. I think people who are dealing with dialysis need better solutions, and when you have technology that’s been around for a long time and hasn’t changed an enormous amount, there’s a real problem in the system … it’s a great moment in time to be working on innovation in kidney disease.”

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Kassandra Thomson (KT): Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what your roles are in your current position or positions?

Larry Soler (LS): I’m an attorney by training, and I currently have a consulting firm called Convergency which is in Washington, DC. We have a practice that works with mission-driven organizations, companies, and trade associations, largely in healthcare and nutrition, with core practice areas in partnership development, innovation, organizational management, and advocacy. Prior to that I was CEO for six years at an NGO called Partnership for a Healthier America, which was the non-profit arm of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Program. We worked with companies to develop some 200 commitments that provided better-for-you and healthier options in food, childcare, physical activity, you name it. Prior to that, I was at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for 13 years, where I began in the advocacy department as a lobbyist, but ultimately worked my way up to be Chief Operating Officer for the organization. I led our efforts to develop automated insulin delivery devices, also known as an artificial pancreas. [I] oversaw the teams that dealt with regulatory [and] reimbursement, and developed multiple product development deals with companies where we co-invested in products. The good news is we now have 2 FDA-approved products that are on the market, and 1 non-FDA-approved system built by families and available on the internet for a low cost.

KT: Excellent, congratulations!

LS: Yeah, it’s a game-changer for treating diabetes and is likely to significantly reduce the number of people with diabetes that develop complications like kidney disease.

KT: How would you describe your areas of expertise that you bring to the table as a member of the CDI Scientific Advisory Board?

LS: I would say there’s a few. One is I’m a patient, a type 1 diabetes patient, so I have the experience of having the disease and also working aggressively on solving a problem and coming up with a solution to treat it, with a good understanding of the essential and important role that patient viewpoints need to play in coming up with a solution that works for everyone. A good example of why that is essential is the Pfizer inhaled insulin system from several years ago, which was something that was very, very expensive for them to develop, and ultimately didn’t sell because it wasn’t designed in a way that was going to be effective for patients. The second is significant experience in marrying non-profit organizations with academics with industry, in co-developing products, whether it’s pieces of solutions such as algorithms, or something else that could be part of an industry product, or all in one. I’ve negotiated agreements that involve IP, governance, and royalty streams. And third, I would say, not an expertise, because other people on your committee are really experts, but a general understanding of the regulatory and reimbursement process, and a lot of experience in using advocacy techniques to drive decision making. The whole area of advocacy I’d say is really a core strength.

KT: What are your thoughts about the CDI’s goal of transforming dialysis, and in particular our goal of developing a new wearable hemodialysis device?

LS: I’m here because I’m excited about it. I think people who are dealing with dialysis need better solutions, and when you have technology that’s been around for a long time and hasn’t changed an enormous amount, there’s a real problem in the system, so I think programs like KidneyX, and CDI, and others that are spurring innovation and developing solutions like you guys have been talking about is something that’s really exciting, and really needed. And I think we’re at a time right now where, for the first time in a long time, America is really focused on kidney disease and the problems with kidney disease treatment for so many, and the need to transform that experience. I think this is an exciting time because of that, and I think it’s a time where we can really utilize that to drive this change. So it’s a great moment in time to be working on innovation in kidney disease.

KT: You touched on it a little bit earlier, but one of our principles at the CDI is that we believe the patient voice is really critical to our success, and therefore we’ve embedded patients in our engineering teams from the very beginning of development, and also have put together a Patient Advisory Board. Do you see this level of patient engagement in other areas of healthcare technology development, and do you think it will lead to improved products and treatment options for patients?

LS: Yes, I think it will have a huge impact and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. It sounds like the system you guys have put in place is a really good way of getting feedback from patients and involving them in the process. I think it’s essential, and I think especially for diseases like this one, where there’s so much impact on the individual – the time it takes, the impact on how they feel, the impact on their lives – that needs to be improved, understanding from patients what’s important and what’s less important – you can only find that out by having them actively involved in this process. I think there definitely seems to be a trend in the field for doing that. Like I mentioned earlier, there have been products that have come out that, whatever patient involvement that’s taken place has not been accurate because the patients didn’t want it, didn’t want the solution that was made. The other thing that’s interesting – I’ve done some work in diabetes with Dean Kamen, and he warned me one time that it’s great to get the patient feedback, but sometimes patients can’t even envision what’s possible, and so you have to sort of take that into account when you’re thinking about this. I never really forgot that. And so I think when we’re really thinking about highly innovative strategies we need to bring the patients along with us for that journey. Patients may be willing to say, ‘wow, we could just do this, that would make my life so much better’, without anticipating that actually we could do something that’s 5 times better. The area that I’ve had the most experience with this is in diabetes, where there’s so many things that are difficult about living with Type 1 diabetes that you could just make one improvement and that would be a meaningful improvement. But working a little bit harder, and thinking a little bit more creatively, and taking more risks could result in something that’s dramatically better. So I think that’s the kind of thing that I would make sure we think about as we’re getting patient involvement. But I am a huge supporter of it, and it’s one of the things that I’ve been excited about learning CDI has done.

KT: I think you’ll enjoy meeting Glenda Roberts, if you haven’t already. She’s our Director of Patient Engagement and External Relations on our leadership team, and she also brings that patient perspective as an experienced dialysis patient and transplant recipient to the leadership team. So, from the top to the bottom, we try to keep the patient input in the forefront.

LS: Great! That’s good.

KT: The last question is what are you most excited about as a new member of our board?

LS: Well, number one, I’m excited to learn what’s under the hood! I’ve heard your presentations, and know you can only share so much, so getting to see what the work is is going to be exciting. I’m also looking forward to meeting the other staff, board members, and people that are involved, who have been involved for a while, and who are leaders in their field. It’s a very impressive group, so that’s something I think is pretty exciting. And mostly just to be closer to people thinking innovatively about meaningfully improving the lives of people with kidney disease who are on dialysis. To me that’s what it all boils down to, and that’s what the measurement is. Can we develop meaningful improvements for them? And once they’re developed, can we figure out ways to make sure that people get access to them?

KT: Great. Thank you very much!