The Real Root of Innovation? Insurance

Entrepreneurs and technical geniuses are hailed for their innovations, but what allows them to take risks in the first place? Insurance.

Humanity’s innate urge for creativity coupled, perhaps, with the promise of fame and riches have been important drivers of innovation throughout history. But what has served as the foundation for innovation? What has helped individuals make the leap from coming up with a great idea to executing it? In one way, the answer is insurance. Insurance and risk transfer are key historical inventions that contributed to the rise of innovation around the Industrial Revolution. Legal and financial advancements, such as modern insurance policies, have been just as significant to innovation as technological breakthroughs. They have allowed humanity to view risky situations as opportunities to progress. Before the Industrial Revolution, creative risks were, well, a lot riskier. In the days of hunter-gatherers and early agriculture, individuals or small family groups bore total responsibility for any consequences should a new crop be unsuccessful or sickness spread because an unproven concept failed. (Starvation and death are steep prices to pay.) As time progressed, hierarchical systems ensured the ruling classes quickly claimed and controlled any innovation devised by those low on the totem pole. Historically, oppression has rarely served to spark advancement at all, let alone at a decent pace. When formalized insurance came along, in addition to stocks, bonds, patents and other financial tools, it allowed people to share the risks and rewards of their personal creativity. Because the downside of failure was no longer as excessive, people were empowered to take bigger leaps. Insurance and its associated analytics removed many of the unknowns from taking a chance on a risk. Insurance and risk management are now so ingrained in the innovation process that we take it for granted as just another step on the way to progress. When you hear about modern space travel, for example, you don’t hear about the insurance policies that make it possible for entrepreneurs to launch ambitious new projects. Unfortunately, the only time we make the connection between insurance and innovative efforts is when something goes wrong. Case in point: It was only when an unmanned commercial rocket exploded last fall that many articles rushed to note it was insured for about $200 million. Today, insurance is stepping in to lower innovators’ risks in other creative ways. One example is a firm that created insurance protection from “patent trolls.” While patents are supposed to protect inventors, some people have found ways to exploit the patent system to enrich themselves instead, while also limiting actual innovation. The high litigation price of defending a patent has caused many start-ups to stall out. Patent trolls have forced even established companies like Apple, Google and Samsung to spend massive quantities of capital addressing seemingly gratuitous patent claims. The new solution steps in to help organizations keep creating. Recently, some insurance companies have begun to offer protection for the bitcoin business. The virtual currency has had its fair share of troubles in the last year or so, with cyber attacks and technical snafus costing investors millions upon millions of dollars. With the advent of protections similar to those offered by the long-established Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, these organizations are making it possible for the bitcoin industry to mature, potentially ushering in a new, all-digital era for commerce. The New York Times Magazine recently dedicated an entire issue to the subject of innovation. It cited prominent M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu directly linking the advancement of society to the necessity of insurance and risk management. In other words, the better we manage risk, the more risks we take and the better off we may all be. This article was originally published on

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