October 1, 2019
A Report From the Front Lines of Innovation
by Paul Carroll
The best description of last week’s InsureTech Connect extravaganza in Las Vegas may have come from an acquaintance who said, “ITC began three years ago as Craiglist, became Tinder and is now something like LinkedIn.”
The reference to ITC-as-Tinder may be a bit spicy, but I think he pretty well captured the arc of the conference as it moved from 1,500 attendees in the first instantiation, in 2016, to the 7,000 souls there last week. ITC began in a sort of “help wanted” mode, evolved into a matchmaker for insurtechs and incumbents and now has established itself as a pretty polished hub for those who want to connect about innovation in insurance.
The shift suggests that the industry as a whole is making progress, and I think I saw that on the floor and in my meetings. But don’t take my word for it. Hear from Guy Fraker, our chief innovation officer, who was in the thick of things more than I was, including as moderator of a panel discussion. Here are Guy’s observations about industry themes, the most interesting companies he saw and the best advice from his panel:
“The overall quality of innovation in the industry has empirically improved. This year, when a carrier approached me [Me: Conferences are a great place to get free advice from Guy.], it was with a specific issue. ‘How do I get unstuck?’ ‘How do we do this one thing?’ In past years at ITC, the carriers would say, ‘I’m not sure about this whole innovation thing. Is insurtech going to go anywhere?’
“My biggest concern is that we still have too few companies looking at all this through the lens of the customer. They think about making more money, being more efficient and improving distribution. But they really need to figure out how to become a company that they’d personally like to do business with. [Me: I’d add that carriers still seem to be ignoring some low-hanging fruit even on the efficiency side. An executive told me he thinks that 80% of payments to customers are still made via paper check—a great way to inconvenience customers while inflating costs.]
“The quality of the early-stage companies is definitely higher. They’re more seasoned. They have a deeper understanding of the industry. There are a lot of startups with good specs for products.
“One of the most interesting companies I visited with was Plnar, which lets you use your phone to take a short video of a room and then calculates all the dimensions. The scary but potentially really powerful part is that the video captures all your stuff, which Google and Amazon would be more than happy to use optical recognition to sort through, giving them massive amounts of data on who owns what where.
“There’s also no way to ignore the miles-ahead position that Tim Attia has put Slice in as a legitimate go-to-market engine for carriers that want to introduce products quickly.
“We could use something similar for startups. But there is a new trend that may help: tech brokers. They don’t have a physical incubator, and they don’t invest money like venture capitalists, but they vet companies in person and then go try to find a match, whether an acquirer, a partner, an investor or customers. Kobi Bendelak is certainly doing that at InsurTech Israel for startups there, and others are popping up. There’s even a new group in Brooklyn.
“Here’s the one thing that hasn’t changed: At ITC, as at all the other conferences where I speak, everybody hates Lemonade. Everybody. They must really be on to something.”