What is it with InsurTech startups and insurance companies?
To any outsider, it’s very clear that InsurTechs and insurers make for very odd bedfellows. InsurTechs are quite ephemeral. They sprout up with the sweet rains of venture capital funding and die as their funding dries up. They are nimble and innovative. They aspire to be the next Google — ready to disrupt the establishment in the best “moon shot” tradition.
Insurers, on the other hand, tend to be corporate immortals, often measuring their tenure in centuries. Their processes appear fixed and hidebound, handed down from ages gone by. Their speed of innovation is positively glacial, and their customer proposition has “rock of Gibraltar” stability. Insurers are the very establishment that InsurTechs are seeking to disrupt.
Opposites attract — or so they say.
The fear of disruption
The insurance industry has seen an ever-growing demand for “creativity,” “disruption” and new digital technology since 2013. AXA was one of the first to declare its intent to become a digital insurer. In April 2014, the company established a lab in Silicon Valley and announced its tie-up with Facebook. At the time, everyone in the industry was waiting in trepidation for the market entry of the tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Samsung and Apple. The fear was that those companies would sweep away the traditional insurers in an Uber-like tech tsunami.
Well, the tide came in, but it was no tsunami. Google breathlessly launched into the motor insurance compare market in March 2015. Just a year later, it unceremoniously departed. The industry heaved a collective sigh of relief because there was little or no impact. Yet the tech giants linger and remain the insurance industry’s boogie man.
See also: An Eruption in Disruptive InsurTech?
Follow the money
The presence of the tech giants has created a created a rush to fund new InsurTech startups. Many of the leading insurance firms have set up VC funds focused on InsurTech. AXA is, again, one of the more notable in this area, providing funding to the tune of €230 million over the last 18 months. VC funding for InsurTech startups has increased 250% year-on-year, from $750 million in 2014 to $2.65 billion in 2015. For insurers, they get financial rewards and get to be at the forefront of any industry disruption if the technology takes off.
But many insurers see the need not only to fund innovation but also to “do” innovation. Hence, we’ve seen a steady stream of insurers around the world establishing innovation labs, collaborative spaces, digital garages and centers for digital disruption. Time will tell if these are fundamental drivers of strategic change or are unmasked as simply “window dressing” for the market.
Widening the net
The InsurTech “boot camp” is another recent phenomenon that has opened up a wider range of innovative startups to the insurance industry. These camps are a cross between an accelerator program, a beauty pageant and a reality TV talent show. For the small price of some equity and the added incentive of some up-front “pocket money,” the InsurTechs get to rub shoulders and gain insights from industry mentors and leading insurers. These boot camps are quite grueling, as they extend over several months. Competition can be fierce, with the best of the best InsurTech teams pitted against each other. The participants get to hone their solution pitches, demos and financial plans for the gathered insurance brotherhood and their fellow InsurTechs. Yet some InsurTech teams are frustrated by the insurers’ lack of urgency and their naïve view of how much effort is really required to make an innovation alliance work.
See also: InsurTech Start-Ups: Friends or Foes?
A new hope
All of this activity has not been lost on governments wanting to push a “clever economy” strategy, creating sovereign incubators for the development of new or exotic financial services products and business models. The Singapore and U.K. governments are leading exponents of this new way of thinking and have spawned a wave of innovation emulators from Australia to Germany. These innovation-friendly government policies generally encompass a mix of:
- Seed funding for startups;
- Provision of “collaborative” spaces;
- Incentives for the establishment of innovation labs; and
- Regulations fostering the flexibility/tolerance to try new things in public that may fail.
Breaking new ground, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has launched its own innovative boot camp: the Singapore FinTech Festival. It’s a coordinated way to accelerate innovation for the whole financial services industry, drawing on FinTech and InsurTech talent from around the world. Singapore is putting its money where its mouth is, funding a “Hackcelerator” competition as part of the festival. This competition will run 10 weeks, starting in September 2016, and it has more than $500,000 of funding and prizes to be shared — no equity required! All the teams need to do is be in the top-20 at solving at least one of 100 problem statements set by the organizers.
In a similar vein, Singapore insurer NTUC Income has announced its own InsurTech accelerator program. It’s offering funding of S$28,000 apiece for 12 top InsurTech startups. Again, no equity required. The program runs from January to March 2017.
If this trend continues, boot camps will be out of business — at least in their current, equity-gobbling format.
But where are the traditional insurance tech vendors?
In all this activity, where are the insurance legacy tech suppliers (LegTechs)? Many of the traditional consulting firms are doing quite well, tying up with some of the boot camps. But those vendors that were selling mainframe systems, software development services and the like, where are they? The answer for the most part is nowhere — the land of digital transformation. Perhaps it’s indicative of the level of mistrust between insurers and their LegTechs that insurers “go direct” to the innovation source. Perhaps it’s the fear that the innovation will too quickly be commoditized by these vendors and spread to insurers’ competitors. Whatever the case, LegTechs are being cut out of the conversation.
This is a big mistake.
LegTechs are better at partnering. They typically understand the innovation process and have a product mentality, which would really help package what InsurTechs have to offer. There is also an alignment on maximizing profit on technology with a common view of pervasively selling into the market. As a consequence, the LegTechs have a large, well-established, tech-savvy salesforce ready to carry the InsurTechs’ message to the market. This is one of the most decisive reasons why InsurTechs should partner with LegTechs. The final reason is that LegTechs are a goldmine of useful resources. They have an army of developers, lab space, sandpit environments, technology centers of excellence and distinguished engineers/architects with decades of experience — all of which would rapidly bring robust InsurTech products to market.
See also: InsurTech Boom Is Reshaping Market
For LegTechs, there are also many attractions. Systematic partnering in this way would inject innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit they badly need. InsurTechs would provide an outlet for some of the LegTechs’ brilliant engineers, giving them an opportunity to dabble with the heady challenges of a startup while maintaining their security. This would definitely boost retention and attraction of this scarce talent pool. Finally, the LegTechs could get into new growth areas rather than stagnate on a declining commodity technology business.
The bottom line
Change is the only constant in an industry fiercely trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The lyrics from the Pokémon song are really quite apt for this current stage: “You teach me, and I teach you,” as I doubt we can “catch ‘em all.” We have a vision but have yet to stumble on the magic formula for repeatable innovative disruption. We hope we’ll find it in InsurTech’s perfect match. Or, perhaps, it has already happened but we just don’t know it. In any case, with boot camps, hackcelerators, insurers, VCs, governments and LegTechs all at hand, our visionary InsurTechs will soon deliver further breakthroughs. Let’s hope their beauty and passion rub off on an old industry.
This article originally appeared in InsurTech News.