(Jason Gross, VP, Innovation, EMC Companies. Image source: EMC Companies.)
The largest insurance companies have always had the advantage of being able to bring greater resources to bear in meeting innovation imperatives. This is as true in the era of InsurTech as it ever was, manifested by the phenomenon of household name insurers running their own innovation labs and even their own startup accelerators. However, the InsurTech movement also democratizes access to the creativity of startups through the open accelerators that carriers of all sizes can participate in. We were reminded of this by the recent news that San Francisco-based property intelligence vendor Betterview had changed its focus from a drone-based offering to services built on its risk management platform. Betterview’s pivot was supported by investor and customer EMC Insurance Companies, which is a supporter of the Global Insurance Accelerator in the insurer’s home city Des Moines, as well as in other accelerators and innovation-related organizations. Seeing this display of agility-in-partnership as an excellent example of how a mid-sized carrier can work effectively with startup companies, we sought out a conversation with Jason Gross, VP of Innovation at the insurer, to discuss more broadly how EMC Companies successfully pursues innovation through partnership with startups.
Insurance Innovation Reporter: How does EMC think about InsurTech, and how does it work with startups?
Jason Gross, VP, Innovation, EMC Insurance Companies: For a company of our size, I’ve heard people describe us as punching above our weight. That’s because we’re actively participating in the InsurTech movement in a way that is comparable to a national carrier. We are participating in some of the larger accelerators such as Plug & Play, as well as regional accelerators such as the Global Insurance Accelerator, and we are sponsoring conferences such as the Global Insurance Symposium. We also participate in the Risk Stream Alliance organized by The Institutes to look at blockchain initially, and we are a founding member of the InsurTech Alliance through our broker Guy Carpenter.
IIR: How do you find InsurTechs to partner with, and how do you work with them?
JG: We start by identifying business problems for ourselves, agents and our policyholders. We use that as our first lens. We enjoy plenty of introductions to startups through accelerators and conferences. Our first filter is verifying that they’re trying to solve problems that we’re interested in solving. We have matured our internal evaluation process from initial vetting to proofs-of-concept. and pilots into production. We now have a 28-step vetting process evaluating startups on many levels, from security to technology to finances, etc.
IIR: In addition to the requirement that the startups be working on problems EMC is seeking to solve, what other criteria do you have for the kinds of InsurTechs you seek to work with?
JG: Since it’s not just about working with a vendor but investing in companies, we have an investment strategy for companies we see as being strategic partners. Also, we don’t just invest in companies we find interesting, but with those we intend to have a commercial agreement with. Of course we plan to enjoy a financial return, but our motivation is also to help the company get to a level where they can deliver the kinds of solutions we need to solve our business problems.
IIR: Could you drill down a little into what you see as a successful engagement with a startup?
JG: At the end of the day we’re trying to add value to existing processes that support our staff, our agents and our policyholders. We will get there not just by being a strategic partner but also by being strategic investor. IIR reported on our investment in MākuSafe, which is a creator of wearable solutions for factory workers. We invested early on in the company and then followed-up. We really believe that will be an important solution that will mitigate the risk of accidents and improve the lives of workers. Today they are going into full production because they’ve had access to the capital needed to add staff, engineering professionals, etc. Without our investment and that of others, MākuSafe probably wouldn’t be where they are today. This will provide resources to help them enhance and grow the product that we already believe very strongly in.
Another case is Betterview, which recently announced a strategic shift from drone services to a risk management platform based on other sources of data and imagery. EMC was one of Betterview’s earliest drone customers. We continue to be a consumer of drone solutions, but we understand and appreciate that startups pivot over time. We were very happy to make this pivot with Betterview to focus on the risk management platform.
IIR: Where does the recent news of a licensing contract with Betterview fit in with EMC’s existing relationship with the company?
JG: We made the investment anticipating that we would have a commercial agreement. We believe in the risk management platform. We were interested in their drone-based services, but we’re very active in the third-party data aggregation space, so the risk management platform—which uses multiple data sources and machine learning—also made sense for us. We think it will help us to better identify building risks we can help to mitigate, and we even look at how to include it in the underwriting process in the future.
IIR: What do you think other insurers could learn from EMC’s relationship with Betterview?
JG: The first part is to be open to new ways of looking at what we insure and how. So, many of us carriers have always done things the way we’ve done them. Many are still content to continue to do that. But it’s remarkable to think what we might be able to do with things such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and aerial imagery when it comes to managing and mitigating risk. So, the first thing other carriers could learn is about recognizing opportunities.
The second part is to take the first step by working to understand your business problems and then take steps to explore entrepreneurial companies whose innovations are suited to helping you solve them.
IIR: Speaking of mitigating risks, how can insurers improve the chances that they are creating partnerships that are going to be successful?
JG: By being honest with ourselves and the InsurTech we’re looking to work with. You have to be honest about problems you’re trying to solve and open to the technical challenges and the reality of your technology, and that’s something we’ve been careful to do at EMC.