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Amazon has no fear about entering the health business, say former leaders at the company

  • Aaron Marin and Curtis Kopf previously worked as directors for Amazon's publishing business.
  • Now, they work in health care.
  • No industry is immune from potential disruption, they say, even the regulated ones.
Jeff Bezos
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
Jeff Bezos

As Amazon takes its first steps into the health sector, many established players say they have little to fear.

As Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina stressed on a recent earnings call with investors, Amazon has "opportunities around the world and in other categories, which are much, much simpler than health care, which is a very regulated business."

In other words, it's too complicated for an e-commerce company like Amazon.

But former Amazon leaders who now work in health care say this view is misguided.

Curtis Kopf worked as a director at Amazon back in the early 2000s, a job that required liaising with the publishing industry. Among his many seemingly crazy tasks at the time: digitizing every book in print. He now views that project as a precursor to Kindle.

"At this point, I don't think there's anything they (Amazon) would be afraid to do," he said, over lunch in Seattle, a stone's throw from the company's headquarters.

After a stint at Microsoft and Alaska Airlines, Kopf now works in the health insurance sector as a senior vice president at Premera Blue Cross. For his first presentation to fellow senior leaders on his team, he detailed a strategy for customer experience inspired by his time at Amazon. Out of that came a program to gather feedback from customers called "Premera Listens."

Kopf is frequently asked about Amazon's strategy for health — to which he responds that he's not ruling anything out.

"Every industry has thought that Amazon wouldn't disrupt them," said Kopf.

As CNBC has reported in recent months, the company has a secret health IT called 1492. It also looked for a general manager to run a new drug business, and it scooped up a colleague of Kopf's at Premera named Mark Lyons to run its internal pharmacy benefits program.

Too big to ignore 

Aaron Martin, chief innovation officer at Providence Health in Seattle
Christina Farr, CNBC
Aaron Martin, chief innovation officer at Providence Health in Seattle

Aaron Martin helped launch Amazon's self-publishing business, as the director for Kindle and Print on Demand.

Now, he runs digital innovation at a local health system called Providence St. Joseph Health.

"A big chunk of my team are from Amazon," he said. With a group of engineers and designers, Martin has launched such initiatives as Express Care, a service for same-day urgent care visits. He also invests in medical-tech start-ups through the hospitals' venture unit, Providence Ventures.

Martin views health care as a major opportunity for his former employer.

Why? It's too big to ignore.

"At Amazon, we learned to pick our battles and didn't look at anything that was less than $500 million," said Martin. "Meanwhile, health care is a fifth of the economy."

Where Martin sees an opportunity for Amazon is in using its expertise in logistics, machine learning and AI voice recognition to create new technology platforms. He is hoping that entrepreneurs with domain knowledge will customize these platforms for the health sector.

"Amazon could build the compliant infrastructure but let entrepreneurs come in and do the heavy lift," he said.