These Female Founders Have a Tech Solution to Americans’ Health Insurance Woes

Christine Carrillo and Helen Lee started health insurance shopping service Joany to make it easier for Americans to navigate their plan options. Can they revolutionize an industry and improve millions of lives?

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Christine Carrillo, co-founder of health insurance shopping service Joany. (Credit: Joany)

Christine Carrillo, co-founder of health insurance shopping service Joany. (Credit: Joany)

Entrepreneur Christine Carrillo found inspiration for her multi-million-dollar venture over dinner.

It all began at a 2014 dinner party, when a friend complained mid-meal to Carrillo and her partner in a healthcare consultancy, Helen Lee, that his health insurance plan did not cover his daughter’s medication. The women offered to take a look at his policy.

But what they thought would be a quick favor soon turned into a labor of love. Wading through the complexities of his plan, Carrillo found herself thinking, “Holy cow, this guy is being completely taken advantage of.” His plan was missing key elements like coverage for doctor visits and prescriptions. Less than 2 weeks later, the pair had found a much better plan for their friend — one that saved him $9,000 in one year, she says.

Carrillo was happy to help, but taken aback by how difficult it was to find a reliable plan. “Customers were getting the raw end of the deal here. Someone needed to do something.”

That “someone” soon became Carrillo and Lee, and that “something” was Joany, a tech company that would strive to make it easier for Americans to understand and buy health insurance plans. Using the Joany site, customers can view all the plans available to them — whether offered through government-run health insurance exchanges or provided by private companies — and use a range of services designed to make choosing and using their policies easier.

Los Angeles-based Joany is targeting a huge market. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 28.2 million people in the United States are uninsured, most of whom are low-income. There is also plenty of confusion about how health insurance works in general, with many Americans failing to understand how their plans work or whether they have the best one for their needs.

Carrillo and Lee, along with their staff of 79 full- and part-time employees, aim to clear things up with their online service, which is free for consumers. And the company has been growing in leaps and bounds since launching in 2014. Last year, Joany served nearly 200,000 consumers in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and generated $26 million in revenue.

Joany’s development and growth in a complex marketplace are fueled by one core belief, Carrillo says: “Everyone deserves healthcare.”

Building the Next Big Thing

Carrillo is a tech and healthcare veteran who has brought engineering and project management expertise to companies of various sizes, from startups to large corporations. She met Lee while working at drug-comparison shopping company Destination Rx in 2006. Together, the two women moved on to healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente not long after meeting.

Realizing how well they worked together, the pair decided to start their own healthcare consulting firm, Humanize Health, in 2011. They were “the MacGuyvers of health insurance,” Carrillo says, teaming up to use their shared talents and knowledge to help insurance companies grow their customer bases and to assist governments working to set up exchanges.

Then came that fateful dinner in 2014, which planted a new seed. While running Humanize Health, the pair pooled their resources and began to develop a new business idea as a side project. They would create a site that aggregates every plan option a consumer has, using a data-driven approach. It would be entirely unbiased and provide just the facts — while the company receives commission payments for plans users purchase, Joany does not endorse one plan or provider over another.

Carrillo called it a “very Joan-of-Arc” approach that disrupts the current insurance shopping process by leveraging technology to break down plans and make them easier to understand and easier to get. By May 2015, Carrillo admits she was “thoroughly obsessed” with the project. She exited Humanize Health and began focusing on the idea full-time under the name Impact Health. Lee followed soon after.

That September, the co-founders were accepted into the accelerator Techstars New York City, and they moved across the country for 3 months to participate. It turned out to be a crucial step in growing the company. When they arrived, they had 15 users — all friends and family, Carrillo says. When they left the program in December, they had 600.

In 2017, following a successful round of Series A funding that brought in $13.1 million, the duo changed the company’s name to Joany — evoking the revolutionary “Joan of Arc” spirit that inspired the company’s launch.

“The market is already changing,” she says, noting that it’s “not about who you buy insurance from — it’s becoming about who services the customer,” which lines up neatly with the people-first philosophy that led Carrillo and Lee to develop Joany. But there is an altruistic edge to the two women’s venture, Carrillo says; they want people to “use insurance in a way that makes them healthier in the end.”

Doing Good on the Ground

Improving access to health insurance isn’t the only way Carrillo hopes to improve lives. She regularly visits inner city schools in the Los Angeles area, spending 3 to 4 hours every week teaching engineering and entrepreneurial skills to high school students. She also mentors other entrepreneurs and CEOs through Techstars’ program, but she is particularly proud of her work with underserved kids.

This work hits close to home. Carrillo grew up in the Los Angeles area herself, and says her upbringing was “very violent and volatile.” She took on household responsibilities from a young age, caring for herself and her siblings when her mother fell into a deep depression after leaving her abusive father. She received little positive encouragement and reinforcement, including from teachers and school administrators. “No one told me I could be an engineer one day. I never thought that was an option.”

The experience instilled in Carrillo a drive to not just get by, but thrive. Now, she counsels kids regularly to make sure they receive the tools and support they need to dream bigger. But, she adds, “the biggest thing I teach them, when they hear my story, is that their environment doesn’t have to” define them.

It has not held Carrillo back. Indeed, she has big plans for her company’s future. Joany’s most significant area of growth has come from its range of help services, she says, and developing them has become a major focus. “Once you buy insurance, what happens to you? Nothing — companies drop off at that point,” she says. To fill that gap, Joany offers ways for shoppers to find in-network doctors, dispute surprise bills and check what’s covered under their plans.

More help services are on the way, Carrillo says, because she sees them as a key means of reaching her main goal of “aggressively growing our customer base.” By streamlining and expanding Joany’s services, she anticipates that more than 1 million people will choose insurance plans through the site by the end of 2018. And by 2020, she aims to grow the company large enough to take it public.

Though she has bold plans, she doesn’t want Joany to become an ever-present part of people’s lives. Rather, she says health insurance “should be something that is forgotten about — that is there all of the time, and you just know that Joany takes care of all of it.” In fact, the less remembered it is in customers’ everyday lives, the better, she says. “At the end of the day, we want customers to take us for granted.”

More than that, though, Carrillo wants as many people as possible to have good health insurance, so they are always able to access a doctor or the treatment they need. “We believe everyone deserves healthcare,” she says.

Posted: January 24, 2018

Candice Helfand-RogersThese Female Founders Have a Tech Solution to Americans’ Health Insurance Woes