Kellogg Chronicles: How A Zell Fellow Was ‘Ayble’ to Make an Impact in Healthcare

Bringing the Kellogg flag on all of our hikes

My journey to business school was somewhat unconventional. I started my career in clinical research, working in translational pediatric pathology research at Emory School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. I published research on everything from respiratory viruses to gastroenterology to graft-versus-host disease.

Following my clinical experience, I spent several years as a strategy consultant at Accenture in the healthcare field. While I was working with Fortune 500 companies, I noticed that many conversations were centered around how these larger, established companies could better protect against, partner with, or learn from early-stage digital health companies. I figured if early-stage digital health companies like Omada, Noom and PatientsLikeMe were making the big “Goliath” players like Pfizer, Merck and Novartis take note, then these smaller players (the “Davids” of the industry) could be catalyzers of positive change.

I came to Kellogg to make the pivot from consulting and legacy healthcare organizations to dive into digital health startup world. Going to Kellogg seemed like the ideal platform to make that pivot because it had such a rich healthcare ecosystem that overlapped with an incredibly strong entrepreneurship track.

Leading a session for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Week at Kellogg focused on “thinking like a VC” and evaluating deal flow.


My path into entrepreneurship was somewhat unexpected. It was inspired by a personal event nearly ten years ago, when I was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal issue known as inflammatory bowel disease.  Despite receiving care from some of the world’s best academic medical centers, I still found it challenging to manage my symptoms and stay in long-term remission. I knew diet and psychology had potential to transform my quality of life. However, I had such a hard time with accessing experts in the field that I decided to build a solution for myself, starting with nutrition. This was the inception of Ayble, a comprehensive ecosystem of support for digestive health patients.

My passion for Ayble inspired my curricular choices at Kellogg, and I decided to take New Venture Discovery with Professor David Schonthal to begin applying tried-and-true startup principles to my personal project. The class put a significant emphasis on customer discovery — to understand the problem deeply prior to building a solution — therefore avoiding the “solution-looking-for-a-problem” issue that haunts many startups these days.

I developed the framework for what would become the full-fledged business during that class. When the course ended, David introduced me to the Zell Fellows program which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The program offers an entrepreneurial experience for Kellogg students who aspire to start or acquire businesses. At the time, it felt like a perfect fit as I worked on bringing Ayble to life. David had explained how participants received mentorship from Kellogg faculty and external experts and were able to engage in global treks and obtain stipends for their ventures.

One of the things that resonated with me the most about Zell was that it focused on backing the founder, rather than backing the business. The programming, coaching, skill development activities, and overall structure of the program made me a better business operator and leader. I then invested and applied these learnings to the business, through its multiple pivots during the program. By the end of the Zell experience, I felt prepared to dive into the business full-time and make my vision for transformative, whole-person gastroenterology care a reality.

One of the most transformational experiences for me during Zell was the mentorship that I (and Ayble by extension) received from the faculty, particularly from Dr. Kate Wolin. As an entrepreneur, investor, advisor, and faculty member at Kellogg, Kate gave me “tough love,” helped me identify potential pitfalls, and coached me to take advantage of hidden opportunities as I grew the business in its early days. Thematically, her experience as the CEO and co-founder of ScaleDown. Her startup, a clinically-proven weight loss program that leveraged the science of self-regulation and daily self-weighing (acquired by Anthem, Inc.) was very similar to the behavioral approach we were taking at Ayble for digestive disorders.

As a trained behavioral epidemiologist, she was also able to guide the early iteration of Ayble to include best-in-class behavioral/lifestyle modification techniques – many of them are core to our platform today.

KWEST Chile spelling out “KELLOGG” in sand dunes


As I hinted at above, the Zell Fellowship program is not an academic exercise or a theory-laden set of workshops, with limited applicability to what we were each going through in our businesses. Instead, there was a direct, consistent connection between the content and the work we were doing every day, which I found to be incredibly valuable.

One of the key accomplishments as a Zell Fellow was being able to rapidly iterate Ayble to make it venture-backable within a year. One of the things the Ayble team focused on early in our life was clinical evidence. As a patient and former clinical researcher, I felt it was important to validate our new approach to nutrition and behavioral health interventions for digestive health. While other Zell Fellows focused on validating their business model, direct-to-consumer messaging, or even systematizing their enterprise sales motion, we ran an Institutional Review Board-approved clinical study on our nutrition program. This was certainly a non-traditional approach to take for a business participating in an accelerator. However, it has proven to be incredibly valuable because it has served as a differentiator and has allows us to build trust with healthcare stakeholders. I’m grateful that the Zell program was flexible enough to allow for our business to grow the way we felt it needed to go.

The Zell experience also was a valuable preparatory experience for the next stage of the business: fundraising. At the Seed stage, venture firms look at the product, the market, the company’s traction, but the most significant chunk of weight is placed on the team and the team’s understanding of the problem it’s solving. Zell’s laser focus on understanding the customer/problem, paired with the valorization of “storytelling” as a key part of building a startup, prepared the business for the rounds of VC conversation we had after Kellogg. I can’t recall a VC question or theme that was asked in all those conversations that wasn’t covered in some way by the Zell programming or from our many conversations with Northwestern folks.

Upon completion of the Zell program and Kellogg MBA, here are some of my main takeaways and advice to aspiring B-school entrepreneurs:

1. Think like a scientist: Running a business and building a startup is all about applying the scientific method to experiment in a business setting. I think the best entrepreneurs run constant experiments, test hypotheses and gather enough data to guide decision-making.

2. Get comfortable—and I mean really comfortable—with ambiguity. Being an entrepreneur means navigating uncertainty because you’re the first person to have built the company you’re building in the way you feel is best to build it. Embrace the ambiguity, because it gives you freedom to build the change you wish to see in the world.

3. Focus on the customer and the problem first: Start with understanding the problem before developing a solution.

4. Embrace the founder-first approach: Understanding who you are, your values, and your leadership style is just as important as building your business, so you can translate that to culture.

The photo under the stars: KWEST Chile in the Atacama Desert


I received a huge amount of support from the Kellogg and broader Northwestern ecosystem as we iterated through the early versions of Ayble. From legal advice on IP protection to the early versions of our AI/ML algorithms (and even the Northwestern investor network), we found what we needed from generous, low-ego, high-impact members of the community. In fact, our first two hires were people we collaborated with during the early stages of Ayble.

Ayble is making a major impact on the community of patients just like me, while providing meaningful value for employers, health plans and health systems across the country. Since the Zell program, Ayble has achieved the following:

  • Raised capital from venture funds with multiple billion dollars in assets-under-management;
  • Published 14 clinical studies;
  • Partnered with F500 employers and some of the largest health plans in the country;
  • Collaborated with 7 of the top 10 academic medical centers in the US;
  • Continued to empower clinicians to provide whole-person care to their patients; and
  • Delivered transformational care to thousands of digestive health patients.

Recently, we launched our second product, an innovative mind-gut program, showing how we’re continually growing and innovating to serve people with GI issues better. That program was built in collaboration with a leading scientific expert on behavioral therapy for digestive health at Northwestern Memorial, the site of the country’s first fully-integrated care delivery program for gastroenterology.

While Kellogg has always had a reputation of being a great general management and marketing school, I think its incredible entrepreneurship programming goes underrecognized. I believe the offerings have only gotten stronger and more robust since I’ve left. I’d recommend the program to anyone who wants to develop as a person first, and then apply those learnings to their business.

Sam Jactel

I encourage aspiring business school entrepreneurs to embrace the process, love the journey, and focus on becoming a sponge in order to be a problem-solving machine. I’m convinced – as are the Zell faculty – that the success of the business will naturally follow if you’re passionate about solving a real problem. Kellogg’s unique approach to entrepreneurship, centered on the founder and community, has been instrumental in my success and the growth of Ayble.


Sam Jactel, MBA, is the CEO & Founder of Ayble Health, an award-winning digital digestive health platform aimed at improving the quality of life for GI patients while reducing healthcare costs. With a background in growth strategy and new product innovation, Sam played a key role in Ginkgo Bioworks’ public offering and the development of its $400M COVID-19 testing business. In addition, he has a strong foundation in healthcare consulting, venture capital, and clinical research, with a focus on addressing childhood gastroenterology conditions, cancers, and infectious diseases.

Sam holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Philosophy from Duke University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, where he was a Zell Fellow. Currently, he serves on the review board for the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program for IBD, contributing to the allocation of funds for research grants to find a cure for Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.

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