Bentonville tech startup tackles healthcare inefficiencies

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,095 views 

Robby Knight is co-founder and CEO of Bentonville-based healthcare technology startup Soda Health. since the company was founded in 2021, it's raised more than $31 million.

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

It’s the startup’s aim 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 allows 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 needs, such as healthy foods, transportation to physicians’ offices and utility bills.

“What we believe fundamentally is that today the existing solutions that are in place are one-size-fits-all,” Knight said. “You have broad-based benefits that are available that people don’t use because they don’t know about” them and don’t meet their needs.

“We take a far more individualized approach,” he added. “We’re inventing the payment infrastructure that doesn’t exist to support that new application … that ability to address needs longitudinally for the member 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 needed benefits, such as housing assistance or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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

“We’ve heard time and time again that in the market today, there isn’t anyone that’s even contemplating the approach we’re taking, which is why investors have been so excited about what we’re doing, in addition to our partners we’re getting ready to launch with over the next few months,” he said.

Knight said that Soda Health has started generating revenue, and its technology platform will begin operating with its first external client in November. An app is in the works, but a timeline for completion has yet to be determined.

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. Over the same period, its employee number is on track to double to 80, he said.

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

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

After Soda Health agrees with an employer or insurance company, it identifies health plan recipients’ strengths and weaknesses for living healthily and places priorities on 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 cannot afford the food benefit over the long term, but Soda Health can help people find and enroll in resources, such as SNAP or food stamps.

“It’s our belief that the approach we’re taking will allow for not only a better utilization and understanding from members of what their benefits are but secondarily and most importantly, it aligns our incentives as a service provider with the human being that we’re ultimately serving to help them identify and have the resources they need, which will ultimately keep them healthier, which allows the health plan and employer to save money,” he said.

Employers and health plans pay Soda Health based on performance. Knight said the company does better financially when consumers’ health outcomes improve. He declined to name the companies and health plans with which Soda Health will work but said they’re some of the largest employers and health insurance companies in the United States.

Born in California, Knight lived a few years in southern Lebanon before growing up in Alabama, including Mobile and Birmingham. He was a social worker for about six years, focused on behavioral health, substance abuse and community social work.

“I got to see first-hand the challenges 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 change.

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

For example, he said 40% of Medicare and Medicaid recipients eligible for SNAP don’t receive the benefits. He said these recipients might cut their medication in half to make ends meet.

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

About 10 years ago, he moved to Northwest Arkansas and joined Walmart. He worked for the Bentonville-based retailer for nearly eight years before he and some co-workers established Soda Health.

Co-founders Daryl Risinger, president and chief growth officer, and Jared Dauman, head of operations, previously worked in leadership positions 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, worked with the co-founders at Walmart. They tried to solve the challenges people faced to access needed benefits but couldn’t find a solution. Baker was asked to join Soda Health shortly after it was founded. She’s working with employers and health plans to provide them with needed benefits.

Baker works closely with healthcare adviser Jim Bailey, a retired Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield executive.

“We’re a young company,” Baker said. “We’re trying to break into healthcare, which is a tough space.” She said the company is leveraging Bailey’s experience and the contacts he’s developed in his career to make it.

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

In 2021, Bailey formed Client Focused Strategies LLC, and he’s been tapping the relationships he developed in his 41 years at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield to introduce people to Soda Health.

Asked about the company’s goals over 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 addressed at the member level, especially with the rise in remote work following the pandemic.

“I was involved with Alice Walton’s health foundation for a couple of years, particularly among the employers,” he said. “What’s trying to be accomplished in Northwest Arkansas is not too far away [from what] Soda Health is trying to accomplish. Those two efforts can complement one another.”

Baker agreed that Soda Health is focused on changing the healthcare system to be focused on the member instead of the group level.

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