The Great Double Unicorn Fixer
Inc.|September 2021
The creator of Carbon Health wants to fix health care for the masses. Previously, he built a company with a mission to fix education for the masses. Both companies are worth billions. He comes from the edge of nowhere in rural Turkey. How the heck does this happen? It actually makes perfect sense.
By Tom Foster

BLUEPRINT OF A REVOLUTION

Eren Bali, co-founder of Carbon Health, pictured in a cardboard prototype of a mobile health clinic.

No 2 EREN BALI

CARBON HEALTH

THREE-YEAR REVENUE GROWTH: 39,734%

FRIENDS OF EREN BALI talk about a certain kind of glow that lights up his face when he gets into conversations about solving problems. The soft-spoken co-founder and CEO of Carbon Health, this year’s second-fastest-growing company on the Inc. 5000, has what longtime investor and friend Paul Lee describes as “a weird, quiet confidence about him. He has a calm demeanor, but also this deep curiosity.”

Lee, who, like Bali, has a degree in mathematics, recognizes a mathematician’s way of thinking. “Math is not about throwing a bunch of formulas at something. It’s about solving problems in a very thoughtful, logical way,” he says. “And I think that’s the fundamental thing that Eren brings to being a founder: He falls in love with problems and breaks down those problems, and then attacks them with solutions.”

Bali’s college classmate Erbil Karaman saw those tendencies early on, while the two attended the elite Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, Turkey. “In everything he did, he wanted to learn the very deepest levels of it, like what it is and how it’s done, and how to do it the best way,” recalls Karaman. “We would get into these very deep discussions about minute details.” Karaman and Bali are still close, and these days the conversations revolve around not just math or computer concepts, but also chess, parenting, or the various social areas, like health care, that Bali feels passionately are unfair or inadequate. “He can go on forever if you hit on one of his topics,” Karaman says.

Carbon Health, which grew 39,734 percent over the past three years and brought in more than $45 million in revenue in 2020, aims to solve one of the knottiest problems in America today: to fix not some specific aspect of health care, but rather the whole broken system. The spiraling costs that force workers and employers to swallow double-digit annual percentage increases and some small businesses to drop coverage entirely; the lack of transparency that leads to exorbitant and indecipherable bills; the stark disparities in access and outcomes for people of color. The list goes on.

The company, based in San Francisco, is one of several that have risen in recent years to combine brick-and-mortar clinics with app-based telehealth. Forward and One Medical offer subscription-based care as a supplement to health insurance.

Walmart and CVS are building chains of in-store clinics with retail-like pricing. Many regional providers offer virtual appointments now, a trend that has accelerated across the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. But few, if any, have the overarching vision of Carbon Health, which Bali describes as “a full-stack, omnichannel primary care provider with an obsession for inclusion and being accessible to everyone.”Translation: cheap health care delivered however and wherever are most convenient for you. As of late July, there were 81Carbon Health clinics in 11 states, with 1,500 more planned by the end of 2025—an ambitious growth target intended to sway the industry toward Bali’s vision of expanded access.

Whether Bali can pull off such a large trick is impossible to say, of course, but it’s worth noting that he’s tried before to reinvent an industry that’s core to a functioning society and ended up creating an innovative company worth billions. That would be Udemy, the world’s largest online education platform, which Bali co-founded in 2010 and is widely expected to IPO this year. (He was CEO until 2014, and chairman until earlier this year.)

Carbon Health is also planning an IPO—possibly next year—and its most recent round of funding, in July, valued it at more than $3 billion. That number vaults Bali into the rare pantheon of founders who have created multiple multibillion-dollar businesses. Call it the league of double unicorns. “I tell him all the time, ‘You’re among a handful of people on this planet who have done that,’ ” says Lee.

“I believe that Eren is up there with Elon Musk and Steve Jobs in terms of his entrepreneurial vision,” says Karaman, himself a tech executive who has held high-level roles at Facebook and Lyft, among other companies. “But Eren isn’t ego-driven. He has these passions and truths that are built into him—like that people should have access to good education and good health care. They’re just core beliefs, and everything in his work comes back to those first principles.”

What forces shape an entrepreneur with the audacity to do something as seemingly foolhardy as rebuilding American health care? That’s where the story of Eren Bali and Carbon Health gets interesting. And it begins not in a Harvard dorm room or on a whiteboard in some Silicon Valley incubator— but in a conflict-torn Turkish apricot-farming village near the Iraqi border in the 1980s.

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