COVID-19: Technology, Investment, Innovation

There are two extremely different states existing within the insurance ecosystem: larger, well-funded participants and then all the rest.

This is a companion article to “Why Work-From-Home Threatens Innovation," published on Aug. 6.

As if our lives and the world in which we find ourselves aren’t confusing enough, for those of us working in the insurance industry ecosystem there are also less obvious threats that we should understand clearly.

There is a general perception that the insurance industry is doing surprisingly well in the face of a global pandemic. It’s true that the redeployment of thousands of employees from physical offices to work-from-home was accomplished very quickly and with minimal loss of productivity or gaps in customer service. It is also true that insurers, specifically auto insurers, have enjoyed an earnings windfall from the dramatic and sudden drop-off in vehicle use and the accompanying reduction in auto claims (even after premium reductions). So, one might also conclude that industry innovation and transformation continues apace – but that’s only partially correct. 

The Twin Realities

A closer examination of the evidence reveals that there are actually two extremely different states existing within the insurance ecosystem, essentially composed of the larger, high-profile, well-funded participants and then all the rest. The pervasive media coverage and general market buzz focused on acquisitions, IPOs, funding and consolidations involving the former group is obfuscating the deteriorating rate of progress among the more numerous and much smaller companies –  the very lifeblood of meaningful innovation and transformation, on which a very large number of Americans depend for their livelihoods. Compounding this dichotomy, and as explored more fully in my earlier piece, the longer-term costs of the new work-from-home model include increases in mental health issues and anxiety among this group. Overlaid on this is the large and growing talent and human resource drain from an industry now more focused than ever on cost reductions, primarily through staff cuts, hiring freezes and early retirement offers. Unfortunately, once the pandemic passes and workloads return to normal, this lost talent and expertise will not quickly or easily be repatriated. 

What the Latest Metrics Reveal

According to the Jacobson Group – the leading provider of talent to the insurance industry – in their July 2020 Pulse report, “As we enter the fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment for insurance carriers and related activities rose to 4.6% in June – the highest unemployment rates the category has seen since 2013. The insurance industry historically lags behind the overall economy in terms of impact, and there are still predictions for a second wave of layoffs that will more directly impact white collar roles.”

In its August 2020 insurtech venture capital funding report, Crunchbase research reveals that, “from the beginning of 2020 through July 22, $2.6 billion had been raised for insurtech companies across 213 deals. That’s down from $4 billion across 315 deals during the same period in 2019,” a 35% year-over-year decrease in funding. 

See also: Why COVID-19 Must Accelerate Change

Willis Towers Watson states in its Q2 InsurTech Briefing that “we are in both pause mode and fast-forward mode. The strength and reliance on technology has never been greater, and yet poor market investment performances and focus on COVID-19-related priorities could see a downturn in technology investments from (re) insurance industry players over the next few years.”

Beyond these revealing investment activity metrics are the subjective observations from our own consulting practice. We are receiving a record number of personal outreaches and resumes from middle management up to executives from within the insurance industry. These inquiries reflect a large industry wide outflow of expertise and talent, which no amount of technology will replace anytime soon.

Signals Beyond Metrics

From the startup community itself, the outreaches for assistance with fund raising, go-to-market strategic advice and market entry are increasing weekly. Beyond the sudden challenge of raising early-stage capital, gaining access to insurers for presentations and discussions is a recurring theme. Hard-won POCs (proofs of concept), the lifeblood of startups, are being suspended or abandoned by carriers, presenting existential risks to these young companies. Consolidations between startups are on the increase, reflecting their need to create synergies, eliminate redundant overhead and conserve cash to survive.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Fueled by pandemic-driven demands, carriers are redoubling efforts to quickly implement telematics-enabled insurance programs, virtual and “touchless” claims inspection tools, AI-enabled photo and video estimating as well as fraud solutions along with digital claims payment capabilities. But the attention and energy required to investigate and adopt these valuable solutions is at the expense of the much greater number of worthy startups and innovations that have been put on hold.         

Other Looming Challenges and Risks

There are additional risks looming for insurers that will affect the broader ecosystem, and that will preoccupy insurers well beyond the end of the pandemic and continue to impair innovation and the health of the insurtech community for even longer. 

Business interruption lawsuits are mounting and will weigh on insurers of all sizes but particularly smaller, less-resourced carriers in defense costs, management distraction, negative public opinion and, in the worst-case scenario, costly settlements and possibly judgments.

Further, a tidal wave of deferred personal lines auto and property claims will surface once lockdowns are eased and will swamp claim departments whose staff has been depleted by layoffs and infrastructure reductions. While virtual and digital claims processes will help cover a portion of this claims volume, more complex or difficult claims will stretch already thin claims resources and expertise.

See also: What COVID and 43 Years Taught Me

And finally, even though new automotive technologies should gradually make transportation safer and reduce accident and claims frequency, those savings will be more than offset by rising complexity and costs associated with repairing these vehicles, driving auto severity to record heights.

The Future

However, I am not pessimistic about the future of insurance. In fact, I look forward to seeing and helping the industry regain and even accelerate the previous momentum gained by leveraging technology to fuel its inevitable and critical transformation. This quote serves us particularly well today – “opportunity and risk come in pairs” – Rwandan writer and blogger Bangambiki Habyarimana.

One of the surest ways to minimize risk is to recognize it and plan accordingly. Let the planning begin.

Stephen Applebaum

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Stephen Applebaum

Stephen Applebaum, managing partner, Insurance Solutions Group, is a subject matter expert and thought leader providing consulting, advisory, research and strategic M&A services to participants across the entire North American property/casualty insurance ecosystem.


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