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Marek Ciolko: “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t”

At Gravie, we strive to improve the way people purchase and access healthcare. What we’ve found is that for many people, the financial structure of their health insurance plan creates a significant barrier that ends up preventing them from engaging with the healthcare system in a way that promotes long-term health. The significant cost burden […]

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At Gravie, we strive to improve the way people purchase and access healthcare. What we’ve found is that for many people, the financial structure of their health insurance plan creates a significant barrier that ends up preventing them from engaging with the healthcare system in a way that promotes long-term health. The significant cost burden that is placed on individuals for every interaction with the healthcare system has reinforced a dangerous perception: you should only go to the doctor if you’re really sick.

Since many serious conditions start out with non-acute symptoms, or often with no symptoms at all, and if not treated early become much more harmful, it becomes more expensive to provide care in the long run. To solve this problem, we created an innovative health plan that removes the cost burden from the majority of routine healthcare services. Once individuals pay their monthly premium, their primary physician visits, specialist visits, labs, generic drugs, etc., are included at no cost. And, with some clever actuarial science, we’ve been able to offer this plan to employers at a cost that is very much in line with current group health insurance offerings.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marek Ciolko, co-founder and CEO at Gravie where he is responsible for delivering on the company’s mission — to improve the way people purchase and access healthcare, and leading the team to design and deliver innovative, consumer-focused health benefit solutions.

Prior to founding Gravie, Marek was co-founder and head of operations of Bloom Health, a company that pioneered the private exchange model of financing health benefits, where he led operations, technology and finance. Prior to founding Bloom Health, Marek was the director of operations and one of the earliest employees at RedBrick Health, a health technology and services company that launched an industry-leading health earnings system.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I spent the first 10 years of my career in management consulting, working with Fortune 500 companies, and was ready for something different, more impactful, and more entrepreneurial. As it happens, my best friend (and Gravie co-founder) was starting a company in the healthcare space, which became my first foray into the industry. Since then, we’ve co-founded two new ventures together, and most importantly, remain great friends.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most memorable moments came early in my career when I was consulting for a very well-known global manufacturing company. While evaluating their finance department, I asked for more information on a system that tracked billions of dollars in assets. I was handed a thick paper binder with a warning not to lose it — as it apparently was the only copy. I was told the only person with knowledge of the system had retired, so this binder was their only copy of the data and if lost, there was no way of getting the information back. That experience made me realize that regardless of how large or successful a company is — there is always a weak link, often something that appears small and inconsequential, but with potentially serious consequences. There are still lessons I consider to this day. For this company, their system seemed to be working just fine (and had been for years), so nobody cared or thought to introduce a new system. That is, until innovation (such as the internet) propelled their system forward, and now they won’t ever go back. Looking at a problem, that many don’t even recognize as a problem with an innovative lens, asking “how can we make this better?” is the heartbeat of an entrepreneur.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

1) Problems, no matter how big they seem, are rarely as bad as they appear. With enough effort and perseverance, you’re more than likely to find a solution, and in the process of solving the problem you may stumble upon new and exciting ideas. This outlook is why regardless of what is happening personally or professionally, my friends and family tell me that I never seem stressed.

2) If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. There have been many occasions in my career when decisions seemed logical and were supported by lots of data, and yet did not feel right. Call it instinct, or gut –but for me, it’s the final, and most important, item on my decision-making checklist.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

At Gravie, we strive to improve the way people purchase and access healthcare. What we’ve found is that for many people, the financial structure of their health insurance plan creates a significant barrier that ends up preventing them from engaging with the healthcare system in a way that promotes long-term health. The significant cost burden that is placed on individuals for every interaction with the healthcare system has reinforced a dangerous perception: you should only go to the doctor if you’re really sick.

Since many serious conditions start out with non-acute symptoms, or often with no symptoms at all, and if not treated early become much more harmful, it becomes more expensive to provide care in the long run. To solve this problem, we created an innovative health plan that removes the cost burden from the majority of routine healthcare services. Once individuals pay their monthly premium, their primary physician visits, specialist visits, labs, generic drugs, etc., are included at no cost. And, with some clever actuarial science, we’ve been able to offer this plan to employers at a cost that is very much in line with current group health insurance offerings.

How do you think this will change the world?

This approach sets people up to take better care of their health, while saving them money along the way. It will drive individuals toward a more balanced and healthier engagement with the health care system — one that is more focused on staying healthy rather than treating conditions that have gotten out of control. In the U.S., we have the top hospitals in the world, staffed with the best doctors and equipped with the latest technology, saving countless lives by treating even the most complex health conditions. Now, we need to work on improving our system so fewer individuals end up in those hospitals in the first place.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The healthcare system in the United States is largely based on a fee-for-service model. As a result, healthcare organizations are not incentivized to focus on low cost prevention and early treatment, but rather on higher value procedures that generate the bulk of their revenue. New value-based models are emerging, with providers being compensated for an outcome (i.e. keeping an individual healthy) rather than each encounter, which much better align the incentives and minimize potential for abuse. As we continue to put the health of the individual first, by understanding whole-person health and not just the treatment of acute symptoms, we will be moving toward a better future.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I have spoken with many of Gravie’s customers (especially in the early days) who called in to get advice on which health plan to choose. In many cases, we ended up helping them choose a high-deductible plan, simply because that was all the family could afford to pay in monthly premiums. What struck me was that most of these customers conceded that the plan they just purchased was essentially useless to them in their daily life. Even though they had health insurance, every encounter with the healthcare system would cost them more than they could afford without dipping into savings or foregoing other essential purchases. What they bought was a product that would protect them from bankruptcy if they were to have an accident or become severely ill, but would not really help them and their family stay healthy. I felt like there had to be a better way.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The key is to make employers and their benefits brokers aware that there is a way to offer a health benefits program that employees can actually use. Employers no longer have to make the gut-wrenching decisions on how much financial pain to impose on their employees when they or their kids need to see a physician. Instead, they can offer a plan that truly aids their employees and their families in pursuing wellness and preventative care. Employers need to take the leap as well. The status quo is no longer sustainable, and the perceived value of employee benefits is eroding.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think the most surprising thing I have learned as an entrepreneur is the importance of serendipity. Being a natural planner, I like to think I can usually chart out the sequence of steps to get to the goal and stick to it. But starting new ventures has taught me that you rarely end up with what your original goal was, and that it’s very important to try out many, sometimes opposing ideas before zeroing in on the real target. So, the advice I wish I had before I started is: “Be passionate about your idea, but don’t get fixated on it — try new things, gather information and be nimble enough to change direction.”

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

For me, the mindset of “inevitability” is the most important trait, especially early in the lifecycle of a venture or idea. It means having the conviction that your idea will succeed, regardless of any setbacks or barriers that you might encounter, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if that means radically changing the original vision along the way.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The traditional model of offering employee-sponsored health insurance has devolved and no longer accomplishes what it was originally meant to do: give employers a valuable tool in their competition for talent, and help employees pay for healthcare in a way that makes it easy to keep them and their families healthy. Join us as we disrupt the status quo with something that makes a lot more sense — a health plan that provides real value– to both employees and employers.”

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My LinkedIn profile.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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