Health/Life Sciences

How this well being startup serving the maritime business noticed big progress within the pandemic

Discovery Health co-founder and CEO Ann Jarris. (Discovery Health Photo)

In January 2020, a ship docking in Dalian, China, called on Ann Jarris for assistance.

As CEO of the company overseeing the health of the ship’s crew, she was asked if they should wear masks or block people from boarding. Little was known about a new virus.

For Jarris, it was the first sign that things were about to change for Discovery Health.

Jarris had eight employees and loyal customers in the maritime industry at the time. And the COVID-19 virus did not have a name yet. “We started to pay attention,” said Jarris.

Now, the Seattle-based company has a central role in the COVID-19 response in the Pacific Northwest. It’s overseen testing and vaccinations for ships, farms and airports, and helped manage the health of thousands of workers.

Jarris now leads a team of close to 300, including nurse practitioners, physician assistants and more than 10 physicians. She steered Discovery Health smartly through its explosive growth and became a go-to partner for companies and agencies at the front line of the pandemic.

Steering fishing vessels through COVID-19

A crew recently vaccinated by Discovery Health. (Discovery Health Photo)

In early 2020, Discovery Health was still bootstrapped.

“I maxed out my credit cards to make sure that we had the testing supplies that we needed,” recalls Jarris.

She had suffered a severe loss only two years earlier, with the death of her husband and co-founder, Ray Jarris, a fellow emergency physician. Together, Ray and Ann had built up a small group of healthcare workers and implemented a telehealth system. The company had momentum, winning business plan competitions and joining Washington state’s first maritime business accelerator program.

The company faced a new challenge when the pandemic hit. Its first assignment was to handle COVID-19 for fishing vessels sailing from Seattle to Alaska in March 2020.

Most companies didn’t know how to manage outbreaks and then get people back to work. But Discovery Health was well positioned to help. “We were the experts in what the environment was like on a fishing vessel, and how you could best respond while continuing operations,” said Jarris.

There was also a sense of urgency. Fishing season was in full swing and with tight quarters, ships were primed for outbreaks. “The state of Alaska remembers the 1918 influenza pandemic,” said Jarris, when many native communities were devastated. The state wanted to prevent outside workers from bringing the virus into remote, medically-isolated communities.  

Jarris forged a partnership with the University of Washington’s virology lab, which had launched one of the first COVID-19 testing efforts in the country. Discovery Health provided the logistics and support for fishing companies, testing thousands of workers that season and managing outbreaks.

Testing site run by Discovery Health. (Discovery Health Photo)

Scaling up

Discovery’s early partnership with fishing vessels provided a blueprint for later efforts. The startup worked with agricultural companies and health agencies for testing and vaccination operations, and its 24-hour COVID-19 testing clinics near SeaTac airport served workers and travelers. It expanded its services for fishing fleets in collaboration with Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the nonprofit Maritime Blue.

“The opportunity was just enormous, all of a sudden,” said Jarris.

She kept the business centered in the Pacific Northwest, focused on testing, and provided more extensive services for medically remote clients in congregate settings, communities with high need. “We really wanted to make sure we were available to them,” said Jarris.

Discovery Health’s revenue grew 60-fold over two years, from 2020 to the end of 2021.

The company has not only served different communities, it partnered with a variety labs for processing COVID-19 tests to assure rapid turnaround. Last spring, Jarris was tapped to help oversee medical care at Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate Expeditions, for its survey of the Titanic. The company’s telehealth infrastructure positions it well to pivot into new areas in the future, she said.

Key to Discovery’s success was deciding in which direction to grow and then diversifying clients and supply chains within those parameters, said Jarris. A strong team and plain hard work had a lot to do with it too. When asked how many hours a week she worked, Jarris answered, “I worked every one.”

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