Insurance talent: D.M.’s most vital natural resource

Jeff Russell | President and CEO, Delta Dental of Iowa; Board Chair, Global Insurance Accelerator

The Idea: Des Moines should leverage its natural resources, insurance talent and its growing underlying insurance ecosystem to double down on on insurtech as a region so it continues to grow into the the country’s primary location for insurance innovation.

Since the beginning of civilization, cities have harnessed the power of their natural resources. Des Moines was founded at the confluence of two rivers to provide the means to grow and sustain the early economy. In today’s economy, cities like ours need to leverage the natural resource of talent to continue to grow.

While we often complain that the No. 1 need for the business community in Des Moines is more workers (and it is), I believe we can use the concentration of insurance talent in the area to draw more talented people to our region.

In various parts of the country, when you walk into a coffee shop on a Saturday morning, you might hear conversations about the local sports team, the ski conditions up on the mountain or the weather at the beach. In Des Moines, it’s quite possible to hear two actuaries discussing pricing models for a new type of insurance product. Nerdy? Maybe. Distinctly Des Moines? Yes.

We need to double down on insurtech as a region. We need to view this emerging ecosystem as a startup itself – one that needs to continue to be nurtured so it continues to grow. We need to turn Des Moines into the country’s primary location for insurance innovation.

There are a number of ways we can continue to grow this ecosystem. For instance, as startups that are founded on the coast are looking to expand and find talent, why not come to Des Moines? While Amazon ran a national contest to open their second headquarters, how could we develop our own HQ2 concept so that startups and entrepreneurs who are looking to open an office in the middle part of the country can easily choose Des Moines? We could build the physical infrastructure and associated support to make expansion here an easy choice.

When established insurance companies are looking to open an office to work on innovation, might they look at Des Moines as well as San Jose? How could we develop an ecosystem that can leverage local investment with venture capital from around the country?

Can we make it easier for professionals inside one of our many insurance companies to take their idea and start their own company? And if they fail (which many startups do), we need to welcome them back to our ranks, knowing that their experience will benefit the insurance company. These are just a few ideas – we need more ideas to make Des Moines the insurtech capital of America.

But the good news is we are already starting from a position of strength due to our success in launching the Global Insurance Accelerator (GIA), which has begun to leverage this natural resource of insurance talent to develop an entirely new ecosystem. Founded in 2014 with seven insurance company investors, the GIA has grown to 14 investors from across the country.

We have brought a total of 26 startup companies in the insurtech (insurance technology) world to Des Moines for a 100-day program from January to April. In addition to their learning through the GIA, each of these companies had the opportunity to pitch their company in front of hundreds of insurance executives at the Global Insurance Symposium right here in Des Moines. The GIA was the first accelerator in the world focused exclusively on the insurance industry and remains one of the bright lights throughout the country.

But what has really made the GIA different from other accelerators around the world is that we have more than 150 mentors who work with these startups to help their company be successful. These mentors, from Des Moines and around the country, volunteer their expertise to help these companies. They help the startups understand the inter-workings of insurance companies. Year in and year out, our startup companies tell us that they can’t believe how much help they receive when they are here. It’s a combination of two natural resources  – insurance talent and “Iowa nice.” I don’t think this mix could work in New York or Silicon Valley. It is unique to us.

However, it’s more than just these 26 companies. The GIA hosts InsurTech Week, where we bring in 12-16 startups to talk about their product, and network with insurance professionals and venture capitalists. What this activity has done is make Des Moines a must-do stop for insurtech startups not only for the target-rich customer environment, but also to understand how innovation is happening in the industry. By focusing on insurance, Des Moines is on the map as one of the hubs for an insurtech ecosystem. In 2016, an insurance industry trade association group sponsored a competition to find the best insurtech startups. This competition had four stops Silicon Valley, New York, London and Des Moines. Being on this list is a step in the right direction.

And we need to do more.

Raygun has printed socks that we like at the GIA. They say, “Kicking Ass. Taking Names. Selling Insurance.” It is part of who we are in Des Moines. By owning it and making Des Moines the location for insurance innovation, we can write the next chapter of our region’s economy. >