Bentonville tech startup tackles healthcare inefficiencies

Robbie Knight, co-founder and CEO of Bentonville-based health technology startup Soda Health, wants to help people overcome challenges and improve their lives.

That’s the startup’s goal as it targets health plan inefficiencies and billions of dollars in wasted benefits by increasing access to needed benefits and adapting them to changing needs.

Soda Health was founded to disrupt the supplemental benefits system with a technology platform that enables health plans to reimburse for goods and services not supported by traditional medical claims. It works with employers and health plans to help consumers pay for their needs, such as healthy foods, transportation to doctor’s offices and utility bills.

“What we fundamentally believe is that the existing solutions that are out there today are one-size-fits-all,” Knight said. “You have wide-ranging benefits that are available, but people aren’t using them because they don’t know about them” and don’t meet their needs.

“We’re taking a much more individualized approach,” he added. “We’re inventing a payment infrastructure that doesn’t exist to support this new application … this ability to longitudinally address the member’s needs as their individual needs evolve.”

Since launching in 2021, the startup has raised more than $31 million. Knight said the recently announced $25 million in Series A funding will be used to partner with retailers and expand its benefits, including providing healthy foods, and to better help people identify and enroll in the necessary benefits, such as housing assistance or the supplementary food assistance program ( Click).

Asked why the startup has been so successful so quickly, Knight said people are excited to help address key challenges and realize the company’s revenue growth potential.

“We’ve heard time and time again that there’s no one in the market today that’s even considering the approach we’re taking, which is why investors are so excited about what we’re doing, in addition to our partners we’re getting ready to launch in the next few months, ” he said.

Knight said Soda Health has begun generating revenue and its technology platform will go live with its first external customer in November. The app is under development, but no completion date has been set yet.

Soda Health has a secondary office in Chicago and has employees in 15 states. In the next 12 months, the company is expected to serve more than 500,000 people. During the same period, the number of employees is on track to double to 80, he said.

Knight said that in five years, the goal is to serve 10 million people and maximize their resources. He said success would be demonstrable improvements in health outcomes and savings for employers and health plans.

The company’s current focus is on Medicare Advantage and Medicaid recipients, but it also works with employers.

Once Soda Health agrees with an employer or insurance company, it identifies the strengths and weaknesses of health plan recipients for Healthy Living and prioritizes immediate and long-term needs. For example, the plan can provide access to healthy foods for someone who is hungry and has diabetes.

Knight noted that plans can’t afford the nutritional benefit long-term, but Soda Health can help people find and enroll in resources, such as SNAP or food stamps.

“It is our belief that the approach we are taking will not only allow for better use and understanding by members of their benefits, but secondly and most importantly, it aligns our incentives as a service provider with the human being, which we ultimately serve to help them identify and have the resources they need, which will ultimately keep them healthier, allowing the health plan and the employer to save money,” he said.

Employers and health plans pay Soda Health based on results. Knight said the company does better financially when consumer health outcomes improve. He declined to name the companies and health plans Soda Health will work with, but said they are some of the largest employers and health insurers in the United States.

Born in California, Knight lived for several years in South Lebanon before growing up in Alabama, including Mobile and Birmingham. He has been a social worker for about six years, focusing on behavioral health, substance abuse and community social work.

“I got to see firsthand the challenges that people face in the system that we have in the U.S.,” he said. “Going into the field of social work, I wanted to make a difference.

“The challenge I saw in the space was that the systems that exist in today’s world create unnecessary strain that makes it incredibly difficult for people to access the basic resources they need.”

For example, he said, 40 percent of Medicare and Medicaid recipients eligible for SNAP do not receive the benefits. He said those recipients may cut their medications in half to make ends meet.

As he became increasingly frustrated with the challenges of accessing the resources he needed, Knight went to the private sector to learn how it worked and create a model to help people access the resources they needed.

About 10 years ago, he moved to Northwest Arkansas and joined Walmart. He worked for the Bentonville-based retailer for almost eight years before he and some colleagues started Soda Health.

Co-founders Darryl Reisinger, president and chief growth officer, and Jared Dauman, chief operating officer, previously served in leadership roles at Walmart. Co-founder Chris Brown, chief technology officer, was an executive at digital wellness platform Rally Health, which UnitedHealthcare acquired in 2017.

Liz Baker, vice president of customer development, works with Walmart’s co-founders. They tried to solve the challenges that people face to access the necessary benefits, but they could not find a solution. Baker was asked to join Soda Health shortly after its founding. She works with employers and health plans to get them the benefits they need.

Baker works closely with health care advisor Jim Bailey, retired executive director of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arkansas.

“We’re a young company,” Baker said. “We’re trying to break into health care, which is a tough place.” She said the company is using Bailey’s experience and the contacts he’s developed in his career to succeed.

Bailey said he has worked with Walmart’s benefits department since 1994. He began working closely with the co-founders as the retailer established its clinical strategy. As they talked more, he said it became a “natural fit” to help Soda Health.

In 2021, Bailey created Client Focused Strategies LLC and used the relationships he developed during his 41 years at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield to introduce people to Soda Health.

Asked about the company’s goals for the next five years, he explained the post-pandemic transformation in health plans and how Soda Health is trying to address health plan benefits at the member level instead of the group level. He expects employer-sponsored plans to eventually be considered at the member level, especially as telecommuting increases post-pandemic.

“I’ve been involved with the Alice Walton Health Foundation for a number of years, particularly among employers,” he said. “What we’re trying to accomplish in Northwest Arkansas is not too far [from what] Soda Health is trying to achieve. These two efforts can complement each other.”

Baker agreed that Soda Health is focused on changing the health care system to focus on members instead of the group level.

“Healthcare will be transformed by looking at people as people and figuring out how to identify what drives their unique health and well-being,” she said.

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