2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: UnifiHealth, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

UnifiHealth

MBA Program: Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Industry: Healthcare

Founding Student Name(s): Olivia Cameron, 2Y 2020 (and non-Kellogg co-founders: Ross Klosterman, Brodie Stone; both Tuck ’20)

Brief Description of Solution: UnifiHealth is a next-generation Third Party Administrator (TPA) for small businesses (fewer than 100 employees) to self-insure their health benefits, lower health care costs, and provide a better healthcare experience for their employees.

Funding Dollars: Currently raising pre-seed capital

What led you to launch this venture? Most people are no stranger to healthcare costs rising unabated or experiences with the health care system that leave something to be desired, in one way or another. This problem is particularly acute for small businesses. Many large employers have turned to innovation to help curb costs and create a heightened experience for their employees. Because of how healthcare is typically funded by small businesses, they don’t have ready access to the same options as large employers.

I co-founded UnifiHealth with Ross Klosterman and Brodie Stone, and each one of us has a parent (or two) who run small businesses. We created Unifi to change how health benefits are built and delivered for small businesses and the more than 30 million people in the U.S. who receive healthcare from them.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Being accepted to participate in the Zell Fellows Program at Kellogg represented a significant milestone for our team’s entrepreneurial experience. Zell provided meaningful mentoring, coaching, and funding that helped best prepare us to launch Unifi beyond graduation.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? Kellogg provided an opportunity through which I could apply classroom theory to build Unifi ’s day-to-day. This came alongside a depth of resources and connections that I could turn to for any questions we encountered along the way.

The Zell Fellows Program at Kellogg was particularly monumental in helping to gain traction and conviction, which made pursuing Unifi after graduation a reality. There is no clear-cut path to successfully launching a company; at times, you don’t know what you don’t know. The Zell program helped me navigate the major questions or considerations that founders encounter when starting a business. Coupled with access to business resources, such as legal or design services, and funding, it is really architected to help jump start ventures.

What I think is unique about the Zell program, though, is its focus on people. As by design, it’s an accelerator first of people, not ventures. The community focus, in-and-between tracks, was impactful in that we became a support network for each other throughout the year. To follow a non-traditional path in business school can certainly carry an element of emotional ups-and-downs, but I was bolstered by a community of people who were walking alongside me in similar shoes. This became a helpful anchor over the year, and one that helped to instill confidence in taking the entrepreneurial leap.

The Zell program also offers the opportunity to work with an executive leadership coach throughout the year. Working with the coach helped me develop a more well-rounded perspective of my strengths and weaknesses and on how I can be the most effective teammate, entrepreneur, leader, and person.

I’d also be remiss not to mention that Tuck similarly provided valuable connections and resources as inputs to Unifi’s success.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Before Kellogg, I worked at athenahealth, which was founded and led by an incredible team. They were not only able to weather the early ups-and-downs and ultimately realize objective success, but also able to create a culture that inspired a lot of people to commit to a career dedicated to making healthcare better (myself included). I think this culture was a product of the energy and relentless dedication to the cause that the founders instilled and nurtured from day one, and I feel lucky for the opportunity to have been a part of it.

Something that was championed by athena’s former CEO and co-founder – and that I very much adhere to – is the notion of being a part of something greater than yourself. Three entrepreneurs who I think wholly embody this idea are Kristof Grina, Kathleen O’Keefe, and Sam Teicher – friends and former high school classmates.

Kristof and Kathleen co-founded Up Top Acres and are reimagining what farming looks like by transforming underutilized urban spaces into a network of city rooftop farms. Sam, who founded Coral Vita, is saving the world’s threatened coral reefs with a Bahamian coral farm that grows coral to be transplanted into dying reefs, enabling a more sustainable reef ecosystem. I’ve always been inspired by their commitment, resilience, courage and fortitude in addressing big problems to effect lasting change.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? It’s hard to pick just one! However, I think some of my most valuable lessons learned came from Professor Carter Cast’s Launching and Leading Startups.

Carter’s firsthand perspective that transcends the full spectrum of company stages made the class particularly relevant for each step we’ve taken with Unifi, and I know I’ll continue to draw upon the class as Unifi launches and scales. Carter also imparted endless wisdom about navigating the inflection points in life, and his reflections have infused so many of the decisions I’ve made and will make moving forward, big and small.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Professors Pete McNerney and David Schonthal, along with Kate Wolin, the Zell Fellows Healthcare track co-lead. They were early champions of Unifi from day one.

I met Pete almost immediately upon starting Kellogg. I welcomed his advice as I navigated my first year and summer at Kellogg. He then became a mentor through the Zell Fellow Program, where he co-led the Healthcare track.

Kate Wolin was a great mentor for me as well. She is a successful healthcare entrepreneur with a host of lessons learned and industry experience which was highly relevant for building Unifi. I’ve learned so much from her and have grown to be a more confident entrepreneur because of her.

David provided a helpful candor exactly when it was needed and really broadened my perspective on ways to think about how we could best de-risk and execute on the product.

Collectively, they were all were a buoying and guiding voice for me, and for Unifi, over the course of the year.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? The pandemic has levied an outsized impact on our target customers, small businesses. In the wake of this, we believe that a new model of affordable and comprehensive health benefits will be increasingly important for small businesses.

More broadly, the pandemic has influenced the prevalence of telehealth and magnified expectations for a less convoluted and more consumer-oriented healthcare experience – all of which are relevant to us. For Ross, Brodie and me, I think the past few months have deepened our resolve to try to fix a part of a very broken system.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? UnifiHealth was founded to break down barriers to access for small businesses and their employees. No one should have access to different healthcare because of their employer size or status. We’re excited for a future in which Unfii can play an integral role in helping everyone access the right healthcare, at the right time, and for the right price.

DON’T MISS: MEET THE MOST DISRUPTIVE MBA STARTUPS OF 2020

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