Carebot Health could help schedule COVID-19 vaccines nationwide

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on last year with no vaccine in sight, I caught up with my neighbor Tyler Marklein.
hand holding a phone

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on last year with no vaccine in sight, I caught up with my neighbor Tyler Marklein.

Shouting from a safe distance, we compared notes on a truly surreal year. He’d gotten a new dog. So had I. But while I’d been stress eating and stockpiling jigsaw puzzles, turns out he’d been launching a health tech company.

Carebot Health (imagine friendly little bots texting that you’re now No. 30 on a vaccine waitlist) officially incorporated in March 2020. It was the product of months of brainstorming between Marklein and his former boss, Jonathan Baran (whose first software startup, healthfinch inc., would soon be acquired for $40 million in August 2020). Healthfinch assists physicians by automating prescription refills, and next the duo wanted to create more solutions in the electronic medical record space. On March 6, they secured $750,000 in seed capital from early healthfinch investor Mark Bakken of HealthX Ventures. But on March 25, Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order began.

Overnight, “health care saw more change in a three-week period than we’ve had in 10 years,” Baran says, citing the example of telehealth, which became critical amid the pandemic. So although COVID-19 wasn’t in the plans (and sent them back to the drawing board), Carebot’s timing felt serendipitous. Suddenly Baran and Marklein were stuck at home with nothing to do but help solve the world’s biggest problem — an entrepreneur’s dream.

“I just love the early days,” says Baran, an engineer who quit his Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to start healthfinch even though his adviser cautioned it was a terrible idea. Ten years and a $40 million exit later, Baran had learned to trust his skill and instincts, and he tapped fellow UW–Madison alum Marklein because at healthfinch they’d always had a “mind meld.”

“Right now it’s just Ty and I and we’re doing everything — jumping between selling and building a product and trying to figure out how to bring a product to market and all the different components that go into it. It’s a lot of fun.”

It also fills a significant gap. Health systems are massive and slow to change, and they’re already slammed with caring for COVID-19 patients. Now they face vaccinating an entire country in a matter of months. To help, Baran and Marklein took a two-pronged approach.

On the consumer side, they created #EndtheRona, a website for people to sign up for vaccine availability notifications. On the systems side, they predicted health officials would soon be overwhelmed by calls on whether, how and when to vaccinate. They knew Carebot technology could help manage call volume while prioritizing high-risk patients and streamlining distribution.

To test the technology, they turned to the flu shot. Partnering with a 75-member physician group in Massachusetts, Carebot built a platform that helped providers prioritize, schedule and distribute influenza vaccines via text messaging — no calling and waiting on hold, no logging onto a web portal. It was a success — 30% of patients switched to text scheduling, and patients who reserved a vaccine were 60% more likely to follow through.

Back home, as Baran and Marklein presented their results to health systems, providers were still concerned patients would be hesitant to take a COVID-19 vaccine. But that all changed in November after Pfizer and Moderna reported their vaccines demonstrated 90% to 95% efficacy. Attention shifted to how to quickly, safely and efficiently distribute COVID-19 vaccines on a mass scale, particularly if demand outpaces supply.

So much remains uncertain and the situation changes by the day. But as systems first vaccinate frontline workers, then high-risk patients, then ultimately the rest of his neighbors, Marklein is optimistic Carebot can help.

“At the end of the day, we see this as the biggest public health challenge that we’re probably ever going to face,” Marklein says. “So we’re trying to play a role and do something good.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor at Madison Magazine.