Up & Running With Joel Theisen, CEO, Lifespark

September 13  

Joel has nearly 30 years of experience in the health care industry with specific expertise in home- and community-based eldercare. Under Joel’s leadership, Lifespark has seen year-over-year double-digit growth, including in the midst of COVID, 44% growth, $41 million revenue, and $16.1 million in capital investment to fund growth, strategic partnerships, and technology development. By 2023, Lifespark is expected to top $200 million.

Known as a business innovator, Joel has earned numerous accolades, including being named a finalist for Leaders in Health Care by the Minnesota Business Magazine, one of the Twin Cities’ 40 under 40, and honored as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award® finalist for the Upper Midwest in 2021, 2018, 2017, and 2011.

Prior to Lifespark, Joel served as Chief Executive Officer for AdvoLife, Inc., a venture-backed company in San Jose, CA. He trained as a critical-care nurse of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and graduated from Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Give us Lifespark’s elevator pitch.

Take what you think you know about Lifespark and throw it out the window. We’re not that little private-pay company anymore. We took the business many may remember that was rooted in a whole-person approach to serving seniors and sparked it. Okay, we ignited it and lit the whole industry on fire. Years ago, we had a vision that seniors needed to live sparked lives. We still believe that today. But for them to live it, they need to have access to everything they need, in one place, across a seamless continuum.

Imagine connecting seniors to everything they need – private-pay, Medicare skilled home health, primary care, hospice, value-based care, navigation, senior living options, and access to any resource – even beyond health care ones – in one place. And being supported by a fully integrated geriatric specialized team. (We think we hit the nail on the head with this model, hammerschlagen-style.) That’s who Lifespark is today. 

Our conversations and actions are focused on forging partnerships to better serve seniors with a whole person client-for-life focus to help them not age, but age magnificently. We’re on the fast-track developing the alternative delivery system enabled by an innovative technology platform that breaks down the siloed walls within the ‘sick care’ system.

By creating a proactive, community-based continuum model that is centered on the client—not the payer, environment, or disease—Lifespark can connect almost any service, any time, any place, wherever our clients call home.

What led you to found Lifespark?

We are called to be servant leaders. To advocate for a system that puts seniors at the center and not in an institution and create a more human experience.

Despite all of our good intents, many seniors are not living a ‘magnificent life.’ The “Age Old Story” is one that seniors bounce hard through a fragmented, reactionary, expensive ‘sick care’ system that has failed them far too long. My vision for a better experience began more than 30 years ago as a front-line nurse where I witnessed seniors on what we’ve coined the ‘roller coaster of health care crises’ – in and out of the hospital, depleting their financial resources, decreasing their wellbeing, and increasing healthcare costs overall. I felt socially responsible to change that.

My vision for a better experience began more than 30 years ago as a front-line nurse where I witnessed seniors on what we’ve coined the ‘roller coaster of health care crises’ – in and out of the hospital, depleting their financial resources, decreasing their wellbeing, and increasing healthcare costs overall. I felt socially responsible to change that.

I founded Lifespark to put the spark back in people’s lives because research and data shows that when seniors are given everything they need to age magnificently, we can achieve triple, even quadruple aim.

As a leader, how did your role changed during COVID-19?

My role hasn’t changed because of COVID-19. It’s only intensified my need to push forward the development of an alternative system for delivering health and wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic provided the accelerant for a firestorm brewing for years. What we saw was a pandemic largely playing out in the home and community where large gaps in care occur.

COVID-19 is ironically acting like a catalyst to push the industry out of its comfort zone, accelerating many powerful innovations that deliver much-needed community-based alternatives.

The societal pressures will be unlike anything we have seen, and as an industry, we need to get ahead of this now; now is the time to attack the poor performing, fragmented, reactionary, expensive ‘sick care’ system that has failed our seniors for far too long.

How have you pivoted your company to address the needs that have arisen since the onset of the pandemic?

We did what we do best – care for the senior population, a population that was most at risk during this pandemic. Our team swiftly went into action with a dedicated 24/7 infection control team who advocated and educated our clients, employees, and their families on how to stay safe and prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Their efforts worked, across the board, Lifespak clients had minimal impact and we are so grateful.

The biggest area where our team had the most impact – addressing social isolation. This pandemic put a lot of fear into the minds of our people, and we were able to quell those with support, guidance, and ways to live a sparked life to keep them going. We were able to fill the gaps immediately and keep people well wherever they lived.

We also launched several service lines to address the immediate and long-term needs of our people.

Hospital@Home program in partnership with North Memorial Health – We quickly prevented and shortened hospital stays, ensured beds and supplies were available for the most acutely ill, and reduced viral load on our partner systems.

Open House – In response to COVID and the death of George Floyd, we built a tech-enabled mobile purple house on wheels and drove it right into our most vulnerable populations to keep them healthy and safe.

Lifespark GO! – In partnership with Envoy America, Lifespark GO provides door-through-door transportation services for seniors. During the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘stay home’ orders, Lifespark GO!! provided creative solutions seniors needed as they sought transportation options and support getting supplies. Additionally, opening this up across the Minneapolis/St. Paul market created more employment opportunities for people who lost their job during the pandemic.

Lifespark Hospice – We recognized the need to do more than just refer and transition people to hospice early. We infused our entire team with the tenets of hospice and palliative care and incorporated late-life experiences into our service lines with the addition of Lifespark Hospice to complete a person’s full life experience.

What are the next big milestones to come in the next few years for Lifespark?

  • Constantly building our company culture and employee experience to be world-class
  • Breaking the 100M mark!
  • 50,000 value-based clients on service
  • Leading the nation in our space with technology and analytics
  • Scale to at least 5 new states

How do you balance leading a startup with your everyday life?

First, you need to surround yourself with a great family and team. Have strong coaches for both business and life to provide you with direct and honest feedback for growth. You also need to hold yourself to a high standard, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Finally, have fun!

What’s one thing people get wrong about startup life?

That it is all work and no play.

What is the best advice you received in your career? The worst?

The best advice I ever received was: “Slow Down and Get Clear.” What fuels me most stems from the worst advice I ever received: “That idea will never work, focus on what you currently do well.”

What is one personal goal for the upcoming year?

Finish top 10 in my age group for the full IRONMAN WISCONSIN – 140.6M

How do you relax/decompress?

Head to nature! I do many extreme outdoor adventures to “get off the grid” and slow down to get clear.

What do you enjoy most about the Medical Alley community?

The energy and excitement that people have. Every one is bright-eyed and optimistic about changing the world!

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