Alumni Spotlight: The Entrepreneurial Odyssey of Jason Bornhorst
Jason Bornhorst (College of Engineering BSE ‘09) has made a practice of reimagining the world around him. From founding TechArb while a student at Michigan to leading two ventures to successful M&A exits to the booming accomplishments of his current start-up, First Dollar, Jason has proven his entrepreneurial prowess time and time again.
Jason’s approach is unique: he applies software to some of the world’s most challenging problems. Through customer-centric product development complimented by great UX design and clear messaging, he creates clean, modern solutions for complex problems in fields ranging from healthcare to fintech. Today, he works to clarify the notoriously ambiguous world of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), making smarter, cheaper healthcare a possibility for millions of Americans. However, like many successful thought leaders and CEOs, his first entrepreneurial experience was during his youth.
“Throughout my childhood, I had always been focused on founding small businesses, and making money on my own. I did lawn service, computer repair, and other service oriented jobs.”
With his childhood business as a formative learning platform, studying entrepreneurship at college was a natural extension of his early experience.
“My experience at Michigan was great, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was there that I realized the potential of software to change the world, and I think this attracted me to entrepreneurship at scale.”
During his time at the University of Michigan, Jason studied both computer engineering and entrepreneurship. Through this powerful combination of academic disciplines, he realized he had the unique skill set for both building software and selling it to others: two fundamental skills for building a business.
“I think this experience was crucial, and eventually led to me creating future ventures.”
His first venture, TechArb, was started during a single summer between academic terms at Michigan. Jason, who surrounded himself with numerous other student start-up founders, noticed that despite a number of academic programs fostering innovation on campus, there was no designated space for students to execute their world-changing ideas.
“The original concept was to provide a space for, and unite the dozens of student-led start-ups. It started as informal meetings at our student houses, and eventually we converted unused office space for all the start-ups of the students we knew closely or casually.”
“For students working together on start-ups, being in the same physical space is very important for success,” said Jason.
From this simple realization, Jason and his friends created TechArb, Ann Arbor’s premier student venture accelerator. TechArb today provides students with mentorship opportunities, material support, a dedicated workspace, and a supportive community of other like-minded students.
“When founding TechArb, I was given $25,000 and an office for the summer. I recruited 2-3 of my friends and got to work.”
In Jason’s words, TechArb “grew its wings,” as he passed the reins of his first venture to the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship after his graduation from college. In the years that followed, Jason first began his professional career in consumer mobile application development at a firm named Mobiata.
Mobiata focused on developing apps in parallel with the growth of smart, mobile technologies. Primarily focusing on the travel industry, Mobiata is accredited for several top grossing apps of the sector. Although the company was quickly acquired by the travel eCommerce giant, Expedia, Jason gained the practical skills he would need to build his first start-up: Patient IO.
“Patient IO is a story about persistence. When we founded the business, we had intended to build a company around human habit development. We thought we could build software to codify habits…”
“We learned there was not a business opportunity there, but in doing so, we were exposed to some deep areas of healthcare, where care management is an issue.”
Metaphorically, care management is healthcare logistics at the Olympic level. For the sickest, and most vulnerable patients, care management involves meticulous coordination of a panoply of doctors, hospital networks, at home care teams and more. It is a high stakes and antiquated practice, as a majority of care management operations are executed by phone calls and slips of paper.
“It was a very low tech space, and I thought that we could build software to improve it.”
Jason spent the next 3 years dedicated to bringing care management into the 21st century. When it had come to fruition, the Patient IO product was a practical combination of software and healthcare administration, which improved the care management landscape nationwide– directly making a difference for millions of patients. Ultimately, the venture was acquired by AthenaHealth in 2016. It was after the acquisition of Patient IO that Jason began brainstorming his next venture: First Dollar.
“First Dollar is a modern platform for any tax advantage spending in healthcare. Our intention is to reimagine HSAs, FSAs, and HRAs in a modern and easy to use experience.”
HSAs are a tax-advantaged medical savings account, designed for consumers enrolled in a high deductible healthcare plan. First Dollar amplifies the value of a dollar spent on healthcare, for both end consumers and employers. The product is positioned to demystify the financial and legal elements of a Health Savings Account and similar accounts. Currently, Jason and his team are positioning First Dollar as a B2B company, allowing health plans and benefits administrators to make HSAs a more impactful benefit for their members.
“I’d never met a person who could clearly articulate the benefits of a Health Savings Accounts, so I thought ‘Let’s make super easy to use software, and help people get more for their money when they need healthcare.’”
Jason currently leads First Dollar as co-founder and CEO, and is excited about the opportunities HSA literacy can offer patients across the country. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every person encountered an unexpected medical expense, whether it be a test, consultation with a physician, or in the most extreme cases, a hospitalization. He hopes with First Dollar, he can diminish some of the financial stress and confusion surrounding health care.
Through First Dollar, Jason seeks to deconstruct barriers to equitable healthcare, and demystify the opportunities provided by an HSA or similar healthcare-oriented savings account. He promotes accessible and affordable healthcare in a world just emerging from the turbulence of a global pandemic. And Jason’s entrepreneurial odyssey will further unfold, as he continues to refashion antiquated systems using next-generation software applications.
Even today, Jason continues to focus on the principles he aspired to as a kid: helping others through digital innovation and service oriented ventures.