Ikenna Okezie built a healthcare company worth over $2.5 billion and he’s saving the lives of people with kidney diseases

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 13, 2024 8:10 AM EDT
Ikenna Okezie. Photo credit: USA Today

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 37 million Americans have chronic kidney disease and nearly a million have end-stage kidney ailments. However, the majority of those affected unaware they have the disease or the rapid pace at which it can progress.  Merging medicine, innovation and business, Ikenna Okezie has built a model focused on prevention and awareness that empowers people with kidney disease to take control of their health.

Born in Nigeria, Okezie immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of two. He grew up in Detroit and attended public school, excelled in academics and was active in extracurricular activities. He went on to attend Yale, where he majored in Economics and was captain of the wrestling team. Okezie was awarded Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1994 and a Rhodes and Marshall Scholar finalist. He was influenced by his older brother and father who are both medical doctors to pursue medicine.

Three years into his medical degree at Harvard Medical School, Okezie was once again beckoned by the call of finance. He ultimately earned a joint degree in medicine and business from Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical. Instead of caring for one patient at a time, he needed to enter a career that would allow him to impact many people. Okezie wanted to be a different kind of practitioner.

“After graduating from Harvard with an MD and an MBA, I felt an urgent need to enter a career that would allow me to impact thousands and possibly millions of people at a time. That, I believe, has been my calling. I wanted to find a way to reduce suffering for as many people as possible,” Okezie said about why he chose a career in finance.

He worked as an engagement manager at McKinsey & Company and as managing director at the Advisory Board Company. Okezie spearheaded strategic, financial, and operational management of a $1 billion business at dialysis company DaVita. He was part of a team that improved care for patients and allowed them to live the best lives possible. Nonetheless, Okezie was frustrated with the fact that patients could only receive treatment after their kidneys were already failing. The disproportionate disparities faced by Black patients and other patients of color affected by kidney disease challenged him to think of a better model.

Inspired by his patients strength and resilience, Okezie set out to get in front of kidney disease.

“The unfortunate reality of health care in America is that, to this day, there are widespread disparities in medicine across many fields in the outcomes for people of color, representing real suffering. That suffering can be seen in the differential rates of maternal mortality rates, diabetes, hypertension, chronic kidney disease and kidney transplants rates, breast cancer survival, and countless others. Changing this systemic problem for the medical establishment requires acknowledging the reality that many people of color have a lived experience that makes them distrust and mistrust the system itself,” said Okezie.

In 2016, Okezie founded Somatus to revolutionize kidney care services. He developed a model that improves the quality of life for kidney patients by providing them with access to information and resources that can help them better manage their condition. The company’s products and services empower patients and their caregivers with the knowledge and tools they need to make informed decisions about their care. Instead of relying on dialysis, a costly and intensive treatment for late-stage kidney disease, the Somatus model calls for early identification of patients at high risk and active management of the underlying conditions that accelerate kidney damage.

Okezie initially struggled to find health plans willing to take a chance on his unproven startup. The dialysis treatment market was highly concentrated. In 2017, Somatus agreed to manage and improve the quality of care of traditional dialysis services for a group of hospitals in Virginia. The startup won its first contract with a health plan in 2018 and was finally able to implement its full care model. However, the contract generated just 10 percent of Somatus’s revenues.

Things began looking up for the company within a few years. In 2021, Somatus launched six new health plan partners and established value-based partnerships with multiple provider groups. It grew membership and reach with its current clients and added more than 1,000 team members bringing its total teammate count to more than 1,350.  Somatus served over 150,000 members in 34 states, across Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, and Commercial plans in 2022. It raised more than $325 million in an oversubscribed Series E financing that brought its valuation to over $2.5 billion.

Somatus has emerged as America’s leading and largest value-based kidney care company. Last year, the company partnered with Inova Health System to launch its Nurse Navigator Program designed to give patients more face-to-face interactions with registered nurses and registered nurse care managers. Okezie has built Somatus into a leading provider of in-home dialysis services, improving the lives of patients across the country.