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There is much discussion in the press and at conferences about insurance incumbents and the disruption that is coming their way. A close examination of what is actually going on reveals that what is being labelled disruption is actually partnership.
Complicating a meaningful discussion about what is happening is clarity around what is meant by the word “disruption.” The term is used so often that it now carries a range of meanings. On one hand, it refers to a specific market phenomenon defined by Clayton Christenson’s theory of Creative Disruption. On the other end of the scale it represents a recognition that technology is changing the industry.
In most articles and presentations the term is not explicitly defined. Many times disruption is used in the context that portends doom for insurers and that predicts that the revolutionary shifts will cause insurers to go the way of the photo film industry or pre-digital music firms. This is a compelling argument given the challenges incumbents face because of the burden of their legacy systems, their aversion to failure, and a habit of extended decision cycles.
Significant Barriers for Newcomers
However, there are several significant barriers for newcomers to address if they are to displace incumbents. Celent’s analysis of what has happened to date in Insurtech concludes that the need to overcome these challenges results in a model of cooperation rather than destruction.
First, capital considerations must be taken into account. This is not the capital required to build a technology solution. Agreed, it is no small feat to fund the activities required to build, test, pilot, launch, and sustain a technology solution. However, this pales in comparison to the amount of capital required to underwrite risk (pay claims and hold necessary reserves). To date, a few startups have overcome this challenge by securing relationships with primary insurers or reinsurers, but if this is the approach, it is cooperation, not disruption.
A second barrier is regulatory expertise. This is not only a knowledge of regulation, but the ability to account for regulatory requirements from the earliest stages of ideation, through design, to sustained maintenance. For startups, detailed regulatory experience can be bought, but this is an additional capital expense. It also can be sourced from a partner, but obtaining this assistance is not likely if the startup is a “disruptor.”
Finally, there is the biggest barrier—customers. As examples of this challenge, startups in the P&C and life insurance space that have been around since 2010 to 2012 have failed to achieve significant scale. In insurance, attracting and retaining customers is much more expensive (there is that capital problem again) and more difficult than in consumer goods.
The inherent challenges faced by both “tribes” argue for a partnership, rather than a replacement, solution. Insurers can address their legacy technology, risk aversion, and decision challenges by working more closely with the new technology firms that actively seek risk and have a bias to action. Startups need risk and regulatory capital and expertise as well as a customer base to serve.
New Business Model
Partnerships between insurers and startups are a new business model. Unlike supplier-buyer relationships of the past, where a contract is negotiated through an extended procurement process, these partnerships must be governed by a common vision and controlled through active communication from both sides. Celent’s research into the best practice in these partnerships emphasizes the importance of adjustments on both “sides” of such relationships. (see report: Accelerating Insurance Transformation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Innovation Relationships).
It will take time to work out the best ways to accomplish this new model, but the barriers faced by both sides will force each to adjust. Economics will drive transformation to occur in a collaborative manner. Success will come to those insurers and startups which are able to make the necessary adjustments to their own preferences, cultures, and working models to create meaningful partnerships.
The predominant Insurtech approach will be one in which startups coexist with, not replace, insurers.