Traveling for the first time post-COVID? This new travel telehealth startup wants to answer your questions
No one wants to get sick while on vacation, and this new telehealth startup wants to make medical care faster and more affordable for travelers.
Launching this month, Runway touts itself as the first-to-market telehealth service accessible 24 hours a day, seven days per week from anywhere with an Internet connection. Following an online physician consultation, Runway can equip customers with prescriptions for at least five of the most common travel ailments: altitude sickness, motion sickness, sleeplessness, malaria prevention, and traveler’s diarrhea. Runway’s services cost $30 per consultation, and all travel medications are priced at $130 or lower, which the company compares to an average of $200 to $500 at “most travel clinic visits.”
And as the rules around COVID management continue to change daily (if not hourly) from country to country, Runway’s online travel health hub is meant to provide travelers and travel operators with easier-to-understand information on medical entry requirements, vaccine recommendations, and medication recommendations.
Founder Josh Rome recently shared more with Fortune about launching a new business that mixes travel and telehealth ahead of what is expected to be (or at least hoped to be) a busy rebound summer for the travel industry.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Runway?
Rome: I started my career at Adobe, helping publishers digitize their traditional print publication workflows through the launch of a new product, the Digital Publishing Suite. Operating with a startup mentality under a broader corporate umbrella was a really unique and exciting experience. I learned a lot about building products to scale and the importance of incorporating processes and documentation from the start.
I then joined Patagonia Pharmaceuticals, a startup my brother and father cofounded just a few months prior. Patagonia is a specialty pharmaceutical company developing innovative prescription therapies for rare dermatologic diseases. I led business development efforts to secure an international licensing deal valued at over $100 million, a $1.5 million FDA grant, and ultimately the divestiture of Patagonia’s lead assets to a public dermatology company in 2019.
I have been an avid traveler and adventurer my whole life, venturing to over 60 countries across six continents, circumnavigating the globe on Semester at Sea, and climbing mountains such as Kilimanjaro and Toubkal. Travel has always been a defining characteristic of my personality, so I sought out to better align that passion with my career. In 2019, I launched CitySpeak, a daily travel-based newsletter turned boutique travel agency. I affiliated with one of the largest agent networks in the U.S. and started expanding my network within travel. I met with tour operators from around the world, hoteliers launching exciting new properties, and like minded travelers and travel advisors on a daily basis.
With a career spanning the tech, pharma, and travel sectors, I was uniquely positioned to launch Runway.
While travel obviously plummeted during the pandemic, telehealth took off like never before. What inspired you to launch Runway at the cross-section of these two industries?
After a successful exit from the pharma industry, the seed for Runway was planted even before the pandemic, as the business idea was really born as a result of a gap I identified while managing my own boutique travel agency. After booking a honeymoon in Bali, a family safari, or a father and son trip to climb Machu Picchu, the first question that a client would ask related to medication needs for their travel. At the time, all I could do was suggest they “speak to their doctor” or “contact a local travel clinic.” The travel clinic infrastructure is so fragmented that I couldn’t even recommend a specific one. As a travel advisor, your job is so much more than just booking hotels and airfare. You need to have a complete understanding of your clients travel style, anticipate their needs, and provide suggestions that will enhance their travel experience—before, during, and after their trip.
I was asked this specific question so frequently, that I decided to dig into the data a bit more and discovered that the travel health category was actually larger than both ED and hair loss combined. As I was familiar with the incredible growth of other [direct-to-consumer] telehealth platforms, I thought there was a unique opportunity to build a brand around travel health.
Post-pandemic quarantine, I wanted to see how travel was changing first hand. I ended my lease in Manhattan and packed up my car with my wife, our six-month-old, and 50-pound labradoodle. The subsequent 18 months were spent driving across the U.S., living in Mexico and spending time in Portugal. I quickly discovered that one’s awareness towards their health and travel would be forever changed. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift where considerations around your health and travel need to be completely aligned. While I was always confident that travel would make a huge comeback, the simultaneous growth of telehealth—and particularly DTC telehealth—created a unique moment in time to launch a business perfectly suited to support an industry I am so passionate about.
Travel is poised for a comeback this summer, but there are still lots of varying COVID restrictions in place. How can Runway help in these situations?
Travel is not only poised for a comeback this summer, but we’re already seeing the busiest travel season on record. Regions that have been closed for years are opening up again for the very first time. Rather than focusing on restricted regions, we are highlighting countries that are open and anticipating strong travel demand. Through the creation of our destination-specific travel hub, we’re developing a tool for travelers and travel suppliers that will become the go-to resource for travel health related information. Think: CDC meets travel.state.gov, with an approachable tone.
Coming from the industry, we understand first-hand the need for such a tool and are excited to leverage our resources to provide insight on medical entry requirements, vaccine and medication recommendations, as well as additional travel insights and recommendations. Especially within the ever-changing landscape due to the pandemic, our travel hub is designed to feature content that addresses these common questions and offers tips accordingly. At launch, we have 20 country-specific pages and are continuing to expand content quickly.
How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?
Runway partnered with the team at Pareto Holdings, an investment and incubation vehicle created by Jon Oringer and Edward Lando, from day one. In addition to Pareto, I wanted to expand our cap table with strategic investors across a broad variety of industries. I’m proud to share that we have received investment from an amazing group of founders and C-level executives from category-defining companies such as RXBar, Sweetgreen, Alice Hospitality, Softbank, Jerry Media, Selina, Plaid, and Intello among others.
Looking forward over the next five years, how do you want to grow Runway? Will you add additional telehealth (or in person) services?
We view travel health as our wedge into the broader travel industry. Alongside health care, travel is also a $1 trillion industry, ripe for disruption.
Runway is a source for information, products, and content. At launch, we’re excited to offer prescription medications for many of the most common travel ailments, and we are working closely with our growing network of travel supplier partners to own this category. These individuals range from any of the 150,000+ travel advisors based in the U.S., to tour operators, booking platforms, travel insurance companies, and others. Runway is integrating directly into the documentation these suppliers are already providing their customers as a complementary offering, providing more convenient and affordable access to prescription medication, and essential information.
Our immediate goal is to displace the antiquated travel clinic by expanding our offerings within the travel health category, including the addition of new prescription products, over-the-counter medications, supplements, as well as eventually, access to travel vaccines. Alongside the development of our product portfolio, we will continue to build out our travel health hub to ensure that Runway remains the go-to resource for travel health related information, for both travelers and travel suppliers.
It’s important for us to remain focused building our community, listening to their needs, and developing elegant and innovative solutions for them as travelers and travel suppliers.
And finally, on a lighter note, given you’re an avid traveler, where are you looking forward to traveling next as more and more borders reopen?
I can’t wait to get back to Japan. It’s a country that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times and one of the few places that I just can’t get enough of. I always describe Japan as a place where you never feel more lost but in the best way possible. There is so much to love about the country—from the food to the culture to the kindness of the locals—whether you’re enjoying the serenity of Kyoto or a sensory assault in Tokyo, it’s such a wondrous place to visit.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.