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Virgin Pulse CEO is bullish on Providence: ‘I call it Silicon Valley at $21 a square foot’

David Osborne, CEO of Virgin Pulse.
David Osborne, CEO of Virgin Pulse.

The Boston Globe is launching a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

Our first conversation is with David Osborne, CEO of the Virgin Pulse corporate wellness company.

Question: Why did Virgin Pulse decide to open its global headquarters in Providence in 2017?

Answer: We were in the suburbs of Boston — in Framingham — and we looked at the growth trajectory for millennials in the workforce.

We hire EPICs (Exceptional Potential early In Career) and being in a suburb seemed like a 1990s thing. We looked at Boston, but Dr. Rajiv Kumar (Virgin Pulse chief medical officer) is a Brown University graduate who had 65 people in the Providence office of ShapeUp (which was acquired by Virgin Pulse). He said if you are going to look at Boston, you might as well look at Providence. We met with the governor and her team. We met with the presidents of five great universities. Now, we’ve gone from 65 to 350 employees in the Providence building.


Q: What is the biggest benefit and the biggest downside of being in Providence?

A: It’s not expensive in Rhode Island — it’s not like Boston. I call it Silicon Valley at $21 a square foot. People can walk or bike to work. There’s WaterFire, great food, great culture. The cost of living is reasonable, and we can pay people appropriately. One of the biggest downsides is being a global company and not having enough direct flight options at (T.F. Green Airport). It’s a great airport — I think the most people I’ve had in front of me in line is one. But we have offices in Minneapolis and Dallas, and the board is in Los Angeles.

Q: What is the biggest threat you see to people’s health and well-being?

A: The health industry is a broken industry, and for a variety of reasons it’s not fixable in my lifetime. You could argue the taxi industry is broken, too, and Lyft and Uber have innovated around it. We are doing the same thing with the health care industry. It’s equally broken, if not worse. We are creating a home base for health — one place people can go to navigate the complexities of the industry so they can be healthier and happier and ready to perform at their peak.

Q: What role is artificial intelligence going to play in the future — in health and wellness in particular?

A: Artificial intelligence will recognize trends — it will recognize your activities and health assessments and automatically offer tips. For example, A.I. will recognize the trends if you have trouble sleeping, as tracked through a Fitbit, and it will provide daily programs and recommendations on sleeping better. Right now, we collect 8 billion data points a month from our 7.5 million users. A.I. can use those vast amounts of aggregate health data — call it Big Data, for lack of a better term — to deliver daily tips, coaching, and personalized recommendations that have high success rates.

Q: I understand you are a former Division 1 college golfer. What does golf have to do with health?

A: If you golf once a year, you would never get any better. Health and well-being are the exact same way. If you try to get healthy once a year or once a quarter, your health will atrophy. To be healthy and perform at your peak, you need to take health and well-being seriously. That involves not just being active but also sleep, nutrition, mental resilience. Sixty percent of our monthly active users sign into the platform daily to read data and content specific to them, and they can track up to 180 healthy habits.

Q: What’s the new office like in Providence?

A: We built this amazing office with a walking track, conference rooms, phone booths, huddle areas, beanbag rooms, mothers’ rooms, and we have a library, phone charge sites, and Ping-Pong tables. A big “aha” moment came with the massive outdoor deck for lunch and at the end of the day. We are creating a culture of true collaboration.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.