Why Walmart Health's chief just left the 'dream job' to lead a testing company you've never heard of

As president of Walmart Health, Sean Slovenski was sitting in one of the most influential positions when it came to U.S. healthcare. 

But last month, Slovenski announced plans to leave the gig at the world's largest retailer to instead lead a company called BioIQ. That firm, which specializes in diagnostic testing and immunization, is a place he describes as "one of those little best-kept secrets in the space." 

Why make that jump?

Sean Slovenski (Walmart)

"Is that a really nice way of asking 'What's wrong with you? Didn't you have your dream job?'" Slovenski said, laughing at this reporter's question during an interview this week.

It was a big job. In August 2018, Walmart tapped Slovenski—a former Humana exec—with the role of leading its healthcare efforts. During his time there, Walmart unveiled a new health center concept under the Walmart Heath umbrella to give patients access to low-cost primary care, as well services like dental, mental health counseling, X-rays and audiology.

They also announced an employee benefit aimed at building its healthcare workforce by offering low-cost degree programs in health-related fields to its employees. In June, Walmart confirmed it was "expanding our current insurance services to now include the sale of insurance policies to our customers" focused on Medicare plans.

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Atlanta-based BioIQ was started up by University of California, Santa Barbara doctoral student Justin Bellante. The company has grown to include the top 40 insurers in the country, a number of the Fortune 50 as customers, and has been growing its governmental business because of COVID, Slovenski said. Walmart was a vendor and partner, he said. 

"They're behind the scenes a lot," he said of BioIQ. "They’ve been quietly building this infrastructure and this approch to diagnostics and immunization. So their clients know about them, but it’s not like you’d know about them otherwise." 

The move to BioIQ had a lot to do with many things, he said, but chief among them was timing. For the past two years, he was part of one of the biggest storylines in healthcare of how retailers are transforming the delivery of care. 

One of the biggest storylines now? Seeing just how poorly the U.S. testing infrastructure was able to handle demand as the U.S. began grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

"Sitting in the Walmart chair, I got to see thousands of testing and laboratory companies from around the world. And I got to firsthand-witness Walmart's employees, the distribution centers and all of the testing set up in our parking lots across the country," Slovenski said, adding they worked with thousands of laboratories across the country, including some of the largest names in the business.

"I couldn't have been more disappointed and, more importantly, shocked at how poor everything was handled; how tests, en masse, would just get lost," Slovenski said. "I literally am 99% sure that Walmart is still waiting on some of the tests results from some of the first screenings they ever did. And that was eight months ago." 

RELATED: Walmart planning to expand health clinics into Florida

Betting on BioIQ

The pandemic exposed some serious vunerabilities in the testing space, Slovenski said. 

"It's more mom and pop shop than you would think. Think about airlines and trains and buses: They're running on the roads, there's gas stations everywhere. There's a place to get a tire or a repair somewhere," Slovenski said. "There is a supply chain for transportation of all kinds pretty much anywhere, at any time, at any corner." 

But when it came to testing: not so much. 

"Laboratories are not the same way. It's a mom-and-pop shop hospital buying 50 tests from one manufacturer and 100 from another," Slovenski said. "And they kind of keep some under their desk. But it's not like they have a regular supply chain. While if you went to a major organization in New York City, they buy and use so many tests everyday, they have a supply chain that's very sophisticated."

So there wasn't an overall lack of tests for COVID that were available. It was that they weren't where they needed to be, Slovenski said. "There might be one million tests in one section of the country. But the outbreak was on the other coast." 

As tests were identified, they had to be moved to the proper spots. Meanwhile, providers and patients alike flooded the largest players in testing with demand and within weeks, they'd hit their capacity. All this led to major delays in patients getting tested and patients who were tested getting their results back. 

"You end up with what ends up looking like a severe shortage. But it wasn't a shortage," Slovenski said. It was a distribution problem and a supply chain problem, he said.

That is the place where BioIQ plays.

"At BioIQ, we're running at about 98% on a 48-hour or 72-hour turnaround time because we're using all these labs everywhere and distributing the demand," Slovenski said. "We had to create a supply chain for testing and results because there wasn't one across the country. So we're taking advantage of that."

While drawing a comparison to Uber is too often thrown out by execs who want to explain why their company is disruptive to a particular industry, Slovenski makes a compelling case for the analogy for BioIQ. In the same way Uber created a transportation workforce by creating a platform to connect them, BioIQ created software that could bring together a network of small laboratories that can compete in terms of capacity against the most established companies.

From building clinics to building out testing

A test kit from BioIQ (BioIQ)

Slovenski describes himself as an 'entrepreneurial startup kind of guy"—another reason it was time to leave Walmart after getting some health programs up and running. Most recently, his resume includes stints as an exec at Healthways, a well-being improvement solutions company and as CEO of Care Innovations, a partnership between Intel and GE. He also served at Humana as vice president of innovation and segment vice president of health and productivity solutions.

"I'm not a big company animal. As soon as I get to the point where bureaucracy is the rule of the day to getting it done, I stop doing well in that environment. And Walmart is the biggest company in the world so of course it's got a bureaucracy and it wasn't my cup of tea. For those reasons, it was just time," he said. "I did my job. That's literally all there is to it."

In a memo to staff quoted by The Wall Street Journal, Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner said Slovenski “and his team have successfully stood up the strategy we hired him to create.” 

As he was trying to decide what to do next, "it felt like there were two areas I was really interested in that I wanted to fix or blow up," he said. "One was the diagnostics space and the impending immunization mess that's probably coming once there is a vaccine.  And then there's the home care space." 

Diagnostics won out, particularly after he got a call from his mentee Bellante, president and chief operating officer at BioIQ, who told him the company was gaining visibility and growing exponentially in the wake of COVID-19 and might even be eying an IPO.  

"'We need a bit more horsepower'," Slovenski recalls him saying. "'If you want to change the industry, oddly enough, we might have the vehicle to do that.'" 

In a release announcing Slovenski's hire as BioIQ's CEO, Bellante said Slovenski's leadership would be "transformational" for the industry.

“Sean has unmatched expertise in developing real-world, scalable solutions to fix some of the most complex problems in healthcare,” Bellante said. “Overwhelmed by the chaos of COVID-19, the established players have proven that their approach to testing cannot meet this challenge. We’re thrilled to have Sean on our team in this critical moment.”

That's ultimately why Slovenski made the jump, he said