Onward: Solving the Transportation Barrier to Better Healthcare

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-27-2023 08:50 AM


Based in the Bay Area, AgeTech Collaborative™ startup participant Onward is on a mission to eradicate transportation as a barrier to healthcare and to alleviate the burden of caregiving. The company provides total transportation management services and a unique rideshare experience for people with mobility and cognitive impairments, including door-through-door service, assistance with belongings, and direct handoffs to healthcare providers. 

We sat down with co-founder and CEO Kim Petty to learn more about Onward’s innovative service. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


Can you tell us about Onward? 

We are solving for transportation as a social driver of health. We do two things. First, we provide companion rides, which is a door-through-door rideshare service for individuals who have cognitive or mobility impairments. Our drivers are trained in first aid, CPR and supporting people with dementia. They’ll go into the home or the hospital to help them gather their belongings, assist them into the vehicle, and walk them into their final destination to ensure that there’s always somebody to accompany them. 

The second thing we do is offer a total transportation management program for healthcare organizations. Our platform can enable everything from traditional rideshares to ambulance services, so healthcare transportation coordinators can go to one place and get access to all the different types of transportation they need. 


So you’re much more than a rideshare company. 

We have an algorithm matching process that can pair riders and drivers based on different needs and impairment levels. We’re continuing to expand that so we can go deep into cultural competency — for example, so we can consistently match riders with drivers who speak their primary language. There’s a lot of nuance that we’re building into the platform to differentiate the experience that riders have with us. 

We get phone calls from riders who say, “I really liked my driver. Can I ride with them again next time?” So we have the ability to do favorite rider-driver pairing, because people who go to dialysis several days a week, for example, don’t want a different driver every time. They want someone who understands their condition, understands the level of mobility support they need, or even if they like to have cookies after their appointment. 


Is the app designed primarily for riders or caregivers? 

We do have some direct-to-consumer riders, and in those cases the app is really designed for caregivers, such as an adult child who is coordinating rides for a parent. However, the vast majority of people who ride with us are doing it directly through the healthcare system. For example, we do 600–800 rides per month for the San Francisco VA hospital, because the reality is that most people can’t afford to pay for a rideshare as a regular mode of transportation. We do a lot of rides for Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, often referred to as PACE programs. Their funding enables them to include transportation as part of their care. 


What was the driving force behind founding Onward? 

I spent my early career doing process improvement and customer loyalty work, and I landed at the Cleveland Clinic as they were starting the first Office of Patient Experience in the nation. Later, I co-founded a company that did research on patient engagement and healthcare.  

Historically, our healthcare landscape has done “sick care,” and that has driven the astronomical cost of healthcare in the United States. About 15 years ago, I started learning about the social drivers of health and how they impact health outcomes, and I thought, “This is it!” It’s about solving for these problems that put people on the path to sickness to begin with. Then I met my co-founder, Steve Grau, who runs the largest ambulance company in the Bay Area, and we said, “We should figure out how to solve for this transportation barrier to care.” 


What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in growing this business? 

We’ve been reasonably fortunate in that we’ve been able to convince people that this is a worthy service. But one of our biggest challenges is that we don’t fit into a classic payment model. We’re not a wheelchair company, and we’re not a taxi company; we’re something in between. This is particularly true when our companions are asked to stay and observe the rider after drop-off. So we’re looking to partner with some plans to develop a strong system of measurement to validate this different model of care and show its impact on the total cost of care. 


What’s next on the horizon for Onward? 

We’re concentrated in the Bay Area right now, and we’re working on geographic expansion. So we’re fundraising to support that because each new market needs a new sales team, new driver acquisition, and so forth. By the end of 2024, our goal is to be in 12 markets where our services are needed most. 


Learn more about Onward at their website.