Leading the way

ITIJ 205, February 2018
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The explosion of startups entering the insurance sector has had a positive impact on the sector as a whole
Sabine VanderLinden
CEO of InsurTech Business
Startupbootcamp InsurTech

ITIJ spoke to Sabine VanderLinden, CEO of InsurTech Business at Startupbootcamp InsurTech, about innovation in insurance, meeting customer demands and the importance of adaptability
 
How did you first get started in the insurance industry, and how did you come to be in your current role?
I started my career in the insurance sector 20 years ago, working for a Lloyd’s of London broker and then for the corporation itself within the regulatory department when regulation was actually still within Lloyd’s. We were evaluating then the risk each managing agency would create for the corporation and we were mandated to prevent it. Our goal was to assess potential risk to the Lloyd’s fund and fine those managing agencies with poor operational procedures. I then went to do an MBA and joined IBM’s strategy and change team as a consultant and subject matter expert in insurance. I was then part of the PwC team that IBM acquired and learned lots from the techniques they brought into IBM’s consulting department. I also worked for technology businesses like FICO, Pegasystems and SSP in innovation and proposition design roles before moving into the startup world three years ago.
Today, I run Startupbootcamp InsurTech accelerators globally. Every year, we source startups from all around the globe. We present the most promising early-stage candidates to our corporate partners. I also work closely with insurers to help with their corporate innovation journey.
 
Can you give us a bit of background about Startupbootcamp Insurtech, the impetus behind the accelerator and its hoped-for impact?
Startupbootcamp InsurTech is one of 21 accelerator programmes Startupbootcamp runs globally in 16 cities. The first programme ran in 2010 and was a cross-industry programme. Quickly, the founders of Startupbootcamp realised that they would drive more value for both startups and corporates by focusing on industry-specific programmes and started their first fintech programme in 2012. From then on, we shaped programmes – including digital health, eCommerce, IOT and Smart Cities to name but a few – to align startups’ innovative thinking and corporate needs. 
The insurtech programme was launched in 2015. We have now graduated 20 startups and look forward to supporting another 11 startups this upcoming year in London and another 10 in Hartford, Connecticut, US.
The ultimate goal is to enable startups with solutions relevant for corporates to find their first customers and then the investment required to grow and scale. We facilitate this by giving them the key resources they need to succeed. We also want to ensure that the corporates we work with acquire the tools they need to innovate in a more consistent way.
 
How would you say the recent explosion of startups has affected the insurance industry? Is the industry adapting well?
I believe that the explosion of startups entering the insurance sector has had a positive impact on the sector as a whole. The sector needs to transform itself and innovate. In an era where change is happening at such a fast pace, insurers need to embrace the most relevant emerging technologies as enablers of their digital transformation. There are thousands of startups entering the industry, competing against incumbent players or aiming to support the industry from adjacent sectors.
These new players are forcing the insurers to wake up to the fact that if they do not embrace approaches to innovation (e.g. open innovation) rather than doing things from within, they will miss the boat. 
I often say that there are early adopters within the insurance sector that were already working with fintechs before the word insurtech came to light. These insurers were observing, changing their internal processes to adapt and absorb somewhat the market changes we are facing right now. Then you had those who followed quickly. It does not take one or two years for an insurer to develop the capabilities required to engage with the startup ecosystem and externalise things they used to deliver within. It may take five years or even longer for many of these players to industrialise adequate collaborative processes that enable them to differentiate in the eyes of their customers.
Now I think some of the slow followers within the industry are realising that they ought to do something. And I also envisage that some of the smaller players within this group may be able to adapt and embrace new techniques to change faster than others.
 
What sort of advice might you give to a major insurer that is perhaps struggling to comprehend these changes?
It is important for insurers and any industry to comprehend that the digital changes that are occurring now and the emerging technologies that are used to facilitate this change are here to stay. So, it is best for the corporate world, in particular those insurers that do not yet have an innovation strategy in place that include external players, to start working on it.
The last major transformation in insurance was in the 1970s when insurers realised that they had to start using technology to automate key processes. The market is now going through its next revolution. As the customer is the one mandating the way they want to interact with firms, they are forcing insurers to adapt too.
Then, traditionally, to get a competitive edge, insurers would invest in product and proposition development teams, and strong IP protection. Today, in a world where knowledge is widely distributed, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy inventions and innovation processes from other companies. An outward-looking approach is required to succeed today.
As a result, businesses cannot afford to ignore open innovation as technology has now become so vital to everything we do. Open innovation can enable businesses to update, modernise and enhance a company’s brand through collaboration arrangements, therefore opening up new avenues and markets and creating new types of dialogues with customers. As the firms look to advance their understanding of technology drivers to meet the needs of current and future customer segments, they should indeed use external ideas (with their internal ideas) and create processes to manage knowledge flows across organisational boundaries to ease the evolution of the organisation’s business model. 
 
You are one of the co-editors of The InsurTech Book, ‘the first crowdsourced insurance book’. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, how it came about and what its aims are?
In 2016, I had mentioned to Susanne Chishti that a group of us (insurtech influencers) wanted to write a book on insurtech in the same stride as The FINTECH Book that Susanne had already published with the support of Wiley. Susanne and I exchanged a few emails on the topic and in early 2017, Susanne reached out stating that Wiley would like to publish a book on insurtech. And I felt at the time that I had to take this opportunity to enable a lot of my respected market colleagues to share their expert view on the trends and changes occurring in the sector.
The key about the book is that it leverages the expertise and thinking of insurance experts located all around the world. The goal is to provide a snapshot at a very specific point in time of how insurtech feels and what it looks like in the eyes of many experts who live and breathe it on a daily basis.
We often hear from new entrants that it is hard to enter the insurance market if you are not from within. There are very few reference books able to describe insurance. We hope the book will inspire new entrants in the sector and incumbents to appreciate the changes that are currently happening in the industry. We look forward to having the book translated into many languages and used as a reference book on university curriculums to inspire the next generation of intra- and entrepreneurs. We are currently going through the final stages of review and editing with plans for publication early Q2 this year. 
 
Fintech and insurtech will be key drivers of change in the insurance industry for the forseeable future. What in your opinion are the most exciting and potentially impactful technological developments currently in the pipeline?
Personally, I would say smart and connected devices, big data and intelligent machines will change what we believe in today, in ways we cannot comprehend yet. We just need to look at what Elon Musk is doing. We will need to:
Watch out for the new ‘smart’ propositions that come to market from a personal lines and commercial lines viewpoint where humans, machines and objects are connected in new ways to apprehend and prevent other things occurring.
As we become more digitised, cyber security ought to be the next big thing, as everything we do that uses technology will be at risk of a hack.
Challengers vs innovators – the industry yearns to work with interesting startups that can help them drive sources of competitive advantage. The industry is capital and regulation heavy so I look forward to meeting those challenger brands that are able to go around our market constraints and inspire incumbent players.
If we can execute an ‘insurance as a service’ model enabled by APIs, which allows insurers to test and learn, then the way investment is allocated and products are launched to market will be revolutionary.
 
Which aspects of your role do you enjoy the most, and which are the most challenging?
Startups – I love meeting and working with entrepreneurs that truly want to change the world of insurance and can. They just need our help to get a few things right. I love their drive. I very much appreciate their ability to empathise and understand their customers. I enjoy coaching them in various ways. 
Corporates – maybe because of my background I absolutely love to solve growth and innovation-related problems. In the past, a lot of the change capabilities delivered for incumbent companies were either delivered through internal delivery teams or through vendors. I have been doing change consulting for many years and I absolutely love working with corporate entities that truly want to make their change practical. No long explanatory reports or long-winded projects, but just the need to get down and dirty to get things to happen, at the right time, to deliver tangible results. 
Thousands of outbound messages – I would love to respond to every call, email, LinkedIn message. I try my best but gradually can do so less and less. I also realise that as things progress, the external outreach will continue to increase. While I do use virtual assistants here and there, I very much look forward to finding one effective multi-channel/multi-platform solution able to manage massive volumes of enquiry at once.
 
If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be and why?
I think venture capital (VC) would probably be my next best option based on my current sets of activities. I think I now understand the constraints that the VC world faces, and I hope that my understanding of the industry can bring a little twist to traditional VC approaches.
In my older days, I would actually really like to go back to one of my core skill areas – advising businesses with their change journey and providing really relevant and practical recommendations, and new world solutions, delivering growth and value through digital mechanisms, and leveraging – where relevant – a multitude of ecosystem players. I feel a key differentiator will be how we can enable corporates to do this fast, flexibly and in the leanest way possible.

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