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The Promise of Galileo

Edward Bergmark, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
January 13, 2015

Edward Bergmark

Edward Bergmark
Edward Bergmark
The company:
Optum

The mission:
Providing a one-stop service for health-related questions

As many great ideas do, this one debuted in the shower. On that March morning in 1990, Edward Bergmark suddenly realized how he might finance the business he had been thinking about for months: He remembered a friend who knew an executive who might be willing to invest the needed capital.

It seemed like a long shot, but the friend agreed to put in a good word, the executive was impressed, and three months later, Bergmark was running his own company.

He had plenty of reasons to be terrified. With a family that included two young children, he had left a good job as the manager of external business for an employee assistance program at Control Data to create an innovative business: a one-stop service for people dealing with any kind of health-related issue. He called it Optum, and he defined “health” in the broadest possible terms.It didn’t actually look like much of a company in the beginning. “It was an office with nothing in it,” says Bergmark. “It was beyond scary; it was terrifying. I found myself sitting in that office wondering what in the world I had done.”

"[As a student at the U of M], not only was I better prepared
for a career in psychology, I was better prepared for life."
“As a psychologist,” he says, “I saw that so many of the problems people confront are intertwined. Often, when one part of a person’s life is a mess, other parts are a mess, too. So I wanted to create a company that provided truly comprehensive, broad-reaching services.”

Bergmark had gotten his doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota, and he knew that this training was going to be a plus for the company he was trying to create.

“The U was known for its ‘dustbowl empiricism,’” says Bergmark. “So much of psychology at the time was ‘Rogers thinks this and Jung thinks that and Adler thinks something else.’ But people at the U were empiricists, with a program based on quantitative analyses and statistics. It was very different training in psychology from anything I had experienced before. The training helped me to think critically and skeptically and to ask, ‘what’s the evidence?’”

As a result, Optum not only promised quality service, but quantifiable results, whether someone needed help with a broken bone or a broken marriage.

“You name it, we dealt with it,” Bergmark says, “so this meant that our staff had to be trained in understanding all kinds of issues, especially since people often are trying to solve the wrong problem. For example, a woman might call and say, ‘How much does a divorce cost?’ The answer might depend on whatever state she’s living in, but the deeper issue might be why she wants the divorce. A husband drunk all the time is different from, ‘I’m in my car and I got out of the house before my husband killed me.’ We could have her talk with an attorney, but we might also help her address violence, or mental health or financial issues if needed.”

Bergmark’s agreement with his investor—United HealthCare—was that Optum would be making money in 18 months. To do that, Bergmark figured the company would have to be more than a good service; it would have to be dazzling.

“It wasn’t a question of satisfying people or not,” he says. “They had to say, ‘This is the most amazing service I’ve ever experienced.’ If that didn’t happen, we weren’t going to succeed. We were going to deliver a quality of service that was just unmatched.”

Unmatched it was. By the time Bergmark left the company in 2004, it was covering over 24 million people, and like-minded businesses were using the data he had refined with the tools he had learned at the University of Minnesota.

“At the U of M they said, ‘You don’t figure out how people work by just using the Aristotelian method—sitting and thinking about why heavy objects fall more quickly than lighter objects. You use the scientific method as Galileo did, which was to actually drop the objects and measure the results.' Not only was I better prepared for a career in psychology, I was better prepared for life."

What he says:

"Psychology is not about what I believe because that's what I want to believe or what I find attractive to believe, but what do the facts actually indicate? That's the most important thing I got from my education. It was an incredibly important part of how I've been ever since."