A conversation with four leading authorities
By Susan Hatten
A little more than 10 years ago, the term “insurtech” was coined, referencing a surge in activity of nontraditional startups which were emerging within the insurance industry. Now, after a decade of evolution and maturation, the insurtech sector has risen to become one of the key drivers of innovation and insurance value-chain transformation on a national and global stage.
Silicon Valley plays host to many of the world’s largest high-tech corporations and tens of thousands of startup companies, many of which are creeping into the insurtech space. This said, there is a hotbed of insurance innovation taking place in the heartland of America—a region coined as the “Silicon Prairie” (with all due respect to its counterpart region of innovation in California).
In response to the need to harness this innovation, BrokerTech Ventures (BTV) was founded in 2019. BTV provides a venue for the best minds in insurance and technology to collaborate and bring to market leading-edge ideas and solutions. BTV is the first broker-led investor group and accelerator program focused on delivering innovation to the insurance agent-broker industry. BTV invests in the research and testing for each of the chosen startups, provides access to veteran industry mentors, and helps scale the technology to market through broker distribution channels.
Headquartered in the Midwest are the two founding firms of BrokerTech Ventures (BTV)—Holmes Murphy, located in Des Moines, Iowa, and M3 Insurance, located in Madison, Wisconsin. Des Moines ranks as the global hub of insurance, on the coat-tails of Hartford, Conn., and New York City, NY.
While COVID-19 may be impacting capital raise results, the insurtech ecosystem is hotter than ever. From Silicon Valley to the Silicon Prairie and across the seas, our BrokerTech Ventures team is closely monitoring activity. We’ve captured voices from some of the most reputable privately held brokerage firms in California, all of which are instrumental leaders tied to the transformational platform of BrokerTech Ventures.
Q: How does Silicon Valley view the innovation taking place in the Midwest (the Silicon Prairie)?
Brian Hetherington —Chairman, The ABD Team
“Innovation and insurtech have gone global, where ZIP codes, and even regions, are of lesser importance. In thinking about what is happening in the Silicon Prairie region, the access to capital, quality education, welcoming tax structure, palatable cost of living, etc., matter now more than ever. As we experienced on a recent trip to Iowa for BrokerTech Ventures, a friendly government and a warm welcome from the Iowa Economic Development Authority carried tremendous weight in terms of my view of innovation and economic opportunity in the Heartland.”
Mike Heffernan —CEO, Heffernan Insurance Brokers
“Being located in the Valley, we don’t always hear about the innovation and insurtech activities taking place in the Midwest. This being said, I believe that while California is host and home to many of the most reputable tech companies and the startup ecosystem, the insurtech movement has been taking place and flourishing in the Heartland and East Coast — and at a much more rapid pace. COVID-19 may have also accelerated the activity for the insurtech movement and growth in the Midwest.”
Keith Schuler —President & CEO, InterWest Insurance Services
“The ability to work from anywhere with remote access has created immediate change and will continue to evolve. No longer is innovation housed in once central area of the country.”
Andy Barrengos — Chairman & CEO, Woodruff Sawyer
“The Midwest offers competitive access for growth, to talent and capital, along with a ‘business-friendly’ environment that is not consistently available across Silicon Valley.”
At latest review, the insurance industry accounts for 16–18% of the employment opportunities in the Silicon Prairie region, including states such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. As referenced by our BTV agency CEOs, the attraction by the insurance community to this region is likely driven by the favorable tax structure, healthy economic opportunities, and access to quality schools and universities for talent.
Q: What advantages do you see in taking the learnings of being centered in Silicon Valley and watching the transformation following the dot-com bust or the Great Recession?
Hetherington, The ABD Team: “The lessons learned from these events are transferable to the Silicon Prairie or any environment that exists to cultivate opportunity. There are pretenders, then there are contenders. This business of insurance is cyclical. There will be highs and lows. You must learn to weather both in order to remain relevant and to rise above.”
Heffernan, Heffernan Insurance Brokers: “We’re involved in several startups that we chose to transfer out of the Bay Area, after COVID-19 hit. We could not cost-justify keeping them tethered in the Valley, given the cost of living, working and doing business in the region. Living here (in Silicon Valley) certainly offers you an appreciation for other areas of the country where cost of living is less and you have the ability to cushion for downturns.”
Schuler, InterWest Insurance Services: “There will be an immense amount of failure taking place during this stretch of uncertain time in our country and world. Insurtech is such a broad term, which creates a challenge in terms of finding those insurtechs who have solid solutions that will survive. BTV allows us to better vet these technologies to ensure the opportunity is lasting.”
Barrengos, Woodruff Sawyer: “Specific to the Valley, one of the greatest lessons learned from either of the downturns is the ability to embrace resilience and create new solutions to difficult problems that users value. There’s also an ability to gain confidence to rise above if you surround yourself with good people and solid capital. We see the timing for BTV to be quite perfect in the midst of COVID-19. With the varied universe of people solving a varied universe of problems, BTV allows us to do so much more—quickly and efficiently. BTV has been forming and developing critical mass, becoming smarter, figuring out how to work together. And it’s just getting started.”
Q: What are you seeing and hearing on a national and global scale as it relates to insurtech?
Hetherington—Chairman, The ABD Team: “Buyer beware. While Lemonade and other notable insurtechs have recently enlisted significant IPOs, there is still a degree of volatility in these companies. As a combined industry sector, by and large, insurance can be more stable—while tech is less stable. Ultimately, when you blend the two, overall assessment of insurtech solutions becomes more challenging. BTV affords all of us an opportunity to leverage collective intellectual bandwidth. We have an opportunity to enhance our agency processes and procedures, become better, more nimble, and more accurate. This ultimately allows these efficiencies to make our customers, and our industry, better. There will continue to be the M&A trend, and BTV allows us to stay abreast of the latest insurtech innovations and to coalesce around the infinite game mentality. While the Valley does bring us unique insights in the heartbeat of tech, there are still 13 sectors of insurtech—and an even greater swath of global capital interested in playing in the space.”
Q: Do you see BTV playing a pivotal role in shaping innovations in insurtech, as well as adding value to your firms and the greater insurance industry?
Hetherington, The ABD Team: “Strong alliances win wars, ultimately, winning the infinite game. BTV is this for our industry.”
Heffernan, Heffernan Insurance Brokers: “We can vet products and services for our clients and agencies, and convene with one another to scale further, faster. It would be nice if there were fewer technologies in our industry rather than more. Where we are headed with BTV, we see a great opportunity in coalescing around a tighter stack of technology.”
Schuler, InterWest Insurance Services: “We are unearthing diversity of thought in our industry. BTV has brought us a listening ear and learning environment. We may all come to the table with a wide variety of unique opportunities, as well as common problems and challenges. BTV enables us to make swifter decisions, where our chances of success are far greater together than going alone.”
Barrengos, Woodruff Sawyer: “BTV offers insights and a portal through which we can vet ideas and concepts. We are in the room where it happens. BTV also provides a knowledge base for those of us who are trying to play the infinite game to make our capital smarter and the startups smarter. We offer added value to our customers and stakeholders all the while. We bring benefit to everyone involved in BTV—a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Q: What are your predictions for the future of insurtech?
Hetherington, The ABD Team: “The strongest companies come out of downturns. The auto industry went through a downturn in the Midwest in 2003. Tesla came out of that downturn. Technology baked into cars has now changed the auto industry. Midwest technologies will emerge much the same. The pace of innovation will continue to escalate at a much more rapid pace.”
Heffernan, Heffernan Insurance Brokers: “I’ll start with one concern that I believe we may be solving for. Think of the abundance of new technology solutions we are introduced to and, as a result of curiosity, we are asking our internal teams to review, beta, pilot, or vet. At what point is it too much, so much so that we risk missing the greatest technology? As we see it, BTV allows us a solution to this overabundance of inbound tech interest in the form of a baked-in vetting platform.”
Schuler, InterWest Insurance Services: “We’ve removed the word ‘challenge’ from our nomenclature at InterWest and replaced it with ‘opportunity.’ Through BTV and the aggregation of thought leaders, we will be able to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers and stakeholders. We need to show that we are innovative and trying to make their worlds better.”
Barrengos, Woodruff Sawyer: “When you think about innovation and where we are, innovation happens where ever people can develop their ideas with access to capital and mentorship. Contrary to how people feel, I don’t know of a better time in my life to start a company to solve a tough problem with a great solution. There’s no better time for BTV to be a facilitator, educator, and user, while also adding capital to move technology forward. We were purpose-built for this time.”
As insurtech continues to flourish, the barriers to entry will only become greater. What is clear is that access to quality amenities and distribution are not only necessary to compete, thrive, and scale, but may be the reckoning differential in selected geography to plant startup seeds.
One thing is certain—the future before us is unknown. As Simon Sinek thoughtfully introduced us all to the infinite game philosophy, such is the advantage of playing the game with spirit, gratitude, and a mindset of abundance between worthy rivals. After all, whether insurtech or otherwise, aren’t we all simply trying to remain relevant in this infinite game called life?
Susan Hatten is Chief Operating Officer of BrokerTech Ventures and oversees corporate and community engagement at Holmes Murphy. Prior to joining Holmes Murphy in 2014, Hatten led marketing & business development for an advertising agency and media company for more than 10 years. Hatten has been an active mentor in the insurtech space and is also active in several women’s initiatives including Holmes Murphy’s Women Optimizing Women (WOW), Lead Like A Lady and Million Women Mentors. Hatten was named the 2017 Meredith Corp. Emerging Business Woman of the Year and is a member of the 2011 Forty Under 40 class by the Business Record, among other honors. Hatten is a graduate of Iowa State University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at www.brokertechventures.com, or follow us on Twitter @BrokerTechVen.