By Katie Bacon ’93
Kelly Close ’90 is founder and president of a company that is nudging forward the treatment of diabetes.
[Business] Kelly (Shaughnessy) Close arrived at Amherst in 1986 from a tiny town in Nebraska. She loved being at college and threw herself into life as a freshman, but physically, she felt awful. One morning she was so exhausted that she couldn’t make it from her room in James across the quad to her class at Johnson Chapel.
A friend helped her to Health Services. After a weight check and health history (she’d dropped to 92 pounds, was very thirsty and had polyuria), the doctor gave an immediate diagnosis: type 1 diabetes.
Close started her own firm after her boss refused to let her work remotely.
An autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes destroys the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin. Going forward, Close would be dependent on insulin injections, and she would have to manage both the hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) caused by eating carbohydrates and the hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) caused by the insulin.
For Close, the diagnosis was shocking. It would also become the basis for her life’s work.
After graduating with a degree in English and economics, she worked on health care projects in the co-CEO’s office at Goldman Sachs. “That’s when I started thinking: This is fun; you can do work on something that you know a lot about and that you care about.” She earned an M.B.A. at Harvard and was an equity research analyst on Wall Street, focusing on firms in the medical technology field. Then her father was diagnosed with cancer. Close wanted to work remotely so she could be with him before he died. Her boss refused, so Close quit.
Her father persuaded Close to start her own company, and in the weeks before he died, he helped her incorporate what would become Close Concerns, a health care information firm tightly focused on diabetes and obesity (type 2 diabetes, unlike type 1, is closely linked with obesity).
Founded in 2002 and based in San Francisco, Close Concerns has about 90 clients, both nonprofit and for-profit, including most of the big names in the field: the American Diabetes Association, the Joslin Diabetes Center, Novartis, Medtronic and Dexcom. With a full-time staff of eight (and other part-time employees), the firm stays on top of everything happening in the world of diabetes—medical research, technological developments, FDA hearings, earnings reports, philanthropy, advocacy. It packages this information into a curated daily synthesis of diabetes news. It also produces a free newsletter for patients.
The goal is to be “ubiquitous in the diabetes world,” says Close. “Everywhere something is happening, we’re there asking questions about it.” Its presence is most obvious at diabetes conferences, which might have 75 lectures per day. Close Concerns researchers (many of them Amherst students or alumni) are always in the front row, hurriedly typing on their MacBooks; within about 24 hours, they report on these lectures to clients.
“Her newsletters are an absolute treasure,” says Richard Kahn, former chief scientific officer of the American Diabetes Association. As he explains, it takes months for information discussed at a conference to appear in the scientific literature. Close Concerns is “invaluable,” says Tom Peyser of Dexcom, to those who “don’t have the time to attend every meeting, listen to every earnings call or scour the literature for every paper.”
In fact, it was in Close’s newsletter that Edward Damiano of Boston University first learned about small pharmaceutical companies working to stabilize the hormone glucagon. That hormone is critical to the functioning of a “bionic” pancreas that Damiano and colleagues are trying to develop.
Close tested this bionic device last spring. “Getting rid of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia for a week,” she wrote in her newsletter, “was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced.”
Katie Bacon ’93 writes about parenting a child with type 1 diabetes at asweetlife.org.