Adrian Peter Tse
May 17, 2016

Insurance accelerators: Not just brand practice

In Asia, rising healthcare costs, the ageing population and the disruption from startups force insurance companies to ‘accelerate’.

Accelerators offer chance to tap into innovation without overhauling existing business models
Accelerators offer chance to tap into innovation without overhauling existing business models

A wide range of brands in Asia are engaging in startup accelerator programmes. The insurance industry is doing the same but for different reasons. Health insurance brands face a unique set of business challenges, and innovation is seen as a way to hedge against the risk of disruption. The overall sentiment of the industry seems to be: ‘Transform before you are forced to transform.’ 

According to Bob Crozier, social network lead at AIA, healthcare costs are rising sharply in Asia. “Wage inflation and the leaps forward in science and medicine are outstripped by the increasing costs of healthcare, which is putting pressure on the whole system,” he says. Add to that an ageing population, and the combined effect is a considerable risk to insurance companies covering health.

Crozier admits that working with startups and running accelerator programmes is not “purely altruistic”. It’s not just for the benefit of startups. The healthcare industry is changing fast, and Crozier says insurance multinationals that have been using the same model for years now have a strong incentive to do more to help reduce the average cost of healthcare and help people “live longer lives”. 

“We are very well aware that we are a payer of claims, which is only getting more expensive,” says Crozier. 

Currently, one of the quickest ways for AIA to find solutions is to tap into what “health startups are doing, work with them and utilise their agility”.

“It also gives AIA a front-row seat to disruption, so it isn’t just theoretical. We need to get our hands dirty and work together with startups to point out problems to tackle,” Crozier says. 

From a startup perspective, Christelle Ho, chief executive at TopDoc says the biggest challenge is that it takes insurance companies a long time to understand digital, especially in innovating e-health platforms. “Then it takes hundreds of years for them to decide whether they want to move forward after they understand it,” she says, half-jokingly.

But she acknowledges that healthcare is complicated. “It’s not about one or two insurance companies trying to do something. Everyone has to work together—doctors, pharmaceuticals and governments. If one part of the stakeholder chain says no, then things can fall apart.” 

From AIA’s perspective, it’s about playing the long game. “Ultimately, for us, it’s about reducing healthcare costs,” says Crozier. “It might not be five years down the line before these startups’ products or services mature. It doesn’t end at demo day, it continues with subsequent meetings with partners and alumni.”

As for acquisitions, Crozier says AIA doesn’t comment on individual investments. “If it does happen, it’s something for the annual report at the end of the year with a similar due diligence process that’s no different to AIA working with any other business.”

On corporate social responsibility, Crozier contends that engaging in accelerator programmes was never a marketing ploy even if it does have an impact on brand perception. “You could do it for PR reasons, but we never played to that angle,” says Crozier. “It’s more about educating our own people. We’re a successful company, but we can’t rest on our laurels.”

Angelo Umali, startup founder and CEO at Simple Wearables, thinks AIA’s accelerator is genuine and describes it as a kind of “matchmaking” exercise. 

“They [mentors] buy you lunches, and as people you actually get along. They give up their personal time. We meet up on weekends. They call when you’re in trouble. I could sense it if it was fake,” says Umali. “I don’t think it’s a checkbox they’re trying to tick to get credit internally. I think it’s a way for them to learn about healthcare innovation without leaving their high-paying jobs to go join a problem-laden startup.”

AIA's Accelerator program

A different approach

Nicolas Chaussin, head of digital innovation and new business at Aviva Asia-Pacific, isn’t so sure about the value of most accelerator programmes.

“There’s a lot fluff out there with accelerator programmes, particularly in Singapore. There aren’t many mature startups here that can actually bring value,” Chaussin explains. “We took a different route. Our goal is to identify customer pain points, digitise our offerings, create solutions, put something in front of customers every now and then and test it out.”

To support its digital agenda, Aviva has set up a digital garage in Singapore, a global twin of the first one in London. The garage is a focal point of Aviva’s digital expertise and develops digital products, tests and launches them with the markets.  

From there, depending on how things go, Chaussin says Aviva might look at working with a suitable startup that is valuable to Aviva’s business and isn’t a competitor. “It has to be mutually beneficial,” Chaussin explains. “I think some of the accelerator programmes are very muddy from that point of view.” 

The other issue that Chaussin sees from accelerators is that companies tend to start from the “technology and what’s shiny”. 

“That’s not how you do a startup—you should always go from the customer’s pain point and problem first,” Chaussin points out. “I see some accelerator programmes with startups that aren’t even related to their industry.” 

To get Aviva’s people involved, Chaussin says the company runs internal hackathons led by the digital garage team in the UK.

But Chaussin has a pragmatic outlook on what he calls the “innovation mentality”. 

“There’s this idea now that everyone has to be creative and innovative, but that is just nonsense,” he says. “Some people are just really efficient and fast, and that’s what we pay them for. 

“You have to be realistic about it—companies can’t have their CFOs waking up in the morning and saying ‘I want to reinvent the balance sheet.’ It’s frustrating for those people too because the brand and business need to continue and they need to go and do their job. For a brand to function, you just can’t have everyone innovating and being creative.”

Our view: While branding may be a side-effect of these accelerator programmes, it’s not the goal.

 

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