Abir Sen, CEO and founder, Gravie Inc.

Michelle Courtright and Kristin Hollander of Made

The fourth time is Gravie

Serial entrepreneur Abir Sen offers a kinder, simpler way to buy health insurance.

By Nora Poole
Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Imagine a world where, as a consumer, shopping for health insurance wasn’t complicated and frustrating. For Kristin Hollander and Michelle Courtright, co-founders of Minneapolis-based creative product agency Made, this sounded too good to be true. The two were in the process of trying to set up healthcare plans for their employees, when they came across Gravie, the latest venture of Minneapolis-based serial health care entrepreneur Abir Sen.

“We had talked to a number of brokers and the whole process seemed so complicated,” Hollander says. Between choosing plans to offer, determining how much to spend, and finding something easy for employees to navigate and use, researching the employer-provided health insurance landscape was proving difficult.

“As a small business, you don’t have time for all that. We wanted something very easy,” says Hollander.

Enter Gravie

Founded in 2013, Gravie is all about making health insurance easy for employees. According to Gravie founder Abir Sen, the health insurance industry is trending away from employer-provided insurance. Employee-driven insurance gives employees the freedom to bring their insurance along if they change jobs. It also optimizes their health care needs as individuals, and results in eligibility for more tax credits and ultimately saves money, Sen says. His most recent startup is devoted entirely to helping employees navigate the changing health care landscape and figure out what their insurance needs are. More than anything, Gravie is devoted to making the process of purchasing health insurance as easy as possible.

For Amanda Thompson, a project manager at Made, Gravie put an end to issues she had been having with her former health insurance provider, and ended up saving her money to boot.

“It was all so straightforward,” she says. “A representative from Gravie came into the office and presented what they had to offer. All I had to do was fill out an online questionnaire about my needs, and they managed all the complicated, tedious parts.” Thompson says she was amazed by how easy it was, from the app and online portal Gravie offers to help customers manage their information, to the speedy response she got when she emailed her representative with a concern.

“It’s the first time I’ve actually understood my health insurance ­— what was covered, what my options were, and what made sense for me,” she says.

“For small and midsize businesses, traditional employer-based health care plans don’t make sense anymore,” Sen says. What does make sense? He says a more individualized, flexible approach is necessary. Addressing customers’ needs along the whole spectrum of problems that come with buying health insurance is essential, thanks to the number of options on the market and all the considerations that go into making an educated choice.

“We want to help employees through the entire process of setting up and managing their health insurance needs,” Sen explains. “Choosing a plan is just the first problem consumers have. After that, they still need to figure out how to pay for insurance, what role their employer plays in helping out with that, whether to go through the private market or find a plan through the public exchange.” That’s not to mention actually filing claims and using the insurance plan after it’s purchased.

Thankfully, the goal of Gravie is to make help available through the whole process. The company even did a pilot program earlier this year in which Gravie representatives operated out of three Target stores in the metro area in order to increase easy access to health care advice.

“The idea is that Gravie is in the business of giving advice about health insurance and health care,” Sen says. “We wanted to experiment with Gravie as a face-to-face presence, and so chose Target for the fact that it already is somewhere people go for certain health care needs, and it has a large and established customer base.”

The three stores that participated in the program were located throughout the metro area — one on Lake Street, one in Plymouth and one in Apple Valley.

Making it personal

Sen’s interest in entrepreneurship, specifically in the health care sector, has its roots in his work right out of college. After growing up in Mumbai, India, Sen moved to Wisconsin to attend Lawrence University. After he graduated, Sen was recruited by Deloitte, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, and moved to the Twin Cities. It was here his career as a serial entrepreneur would take off.

“I quickly figured out consulting wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Sen says. In 1998, he left his consulting job to launch Definity Health, a company that pioneered consumer-driven health care. Sen’s interest in the health care industry was influenced by a personal experience with a health issue that put him up against the worst side of the industry. For Sen, finding a way to make health insurance easier for everyone just made sense.

In 2004, Definity Health was acquired by United Health Group. Sen stayed on with the company for another year, but was soon itching to get his next venture off the ground. In 2006, he founded RedBrick Health, a health engagement and technology company geared toward helping employers manage health care costs, while at the same time making it easy for employees to invest themselves in better health and wellness. The bottom line was to shift the focus from health care to health, Sen explains.

About three years after RedBrick was launched, discussions of how to better manage health insurance took center stage with President Obama’s proposed health care reforms. The healthcare landscape was evolving, Sen explains, the focus shifting away from traditional employer-offered insurance toward employee-focused plans. In 2009, Sen again passed the torch and left to start a new company, Bloom Health, which was dedicated to assisting employers and employees navigate the public exchange. Like Definity Health before it, Bloom Health caught the attention of a big industry player, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and was acquired in 2011.

Between 2011 and 2013, Sen refocused his efforts on Gravie, his latest project, which launched in September 2013. Sen’s entrepreneurial career is seriously serial. “I don’t know what it looks like to have a ‘real job,’” he jokes. “I’ve been working on startup companies since I graduated college. It’s the kind of job that takes 150% of your energy.” To make a startup successful, he says, “It’s all in.”