FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Bangkok-based insurtech Sunday banks $45M Series B from investors like Tencent

By Catherine Shu

Sunday, an insurtech startup based in Bangkok, announced it has raised a $45 million Series B. Investors include Tencent, SCB 10X, Vertex Growth, Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, Quona Capital, Aflac Ventures and Z Venture Capital. The company says the round was oversubscribed, and that it doubled its revenue growth in 2020.

Founded in 2017, Sunday describes itself as a “full-stack” insurtech, which means it handles everything from underwriting to distribution of its policies. Its products currently include motor and travel insurance policies that can be purchased online, and Sunday Health for Business, a healthcare coverage program for employers. Sunday also offers subscription-based smartphone plans through partners.

The company uses AI and machine learning-based technology underwrite its motor insurance and employee health benefits products, and says its data models also allow it to automate pricing and scale its underwriting process for complex risks. Sunday says it currently serves 1.6 million customers.

The new funding will be used to expand in Indonesia and develop new distribution channels, including insurance agents and SMEs.

Insurance penetration is still relatively low in many Southeast Asian markets, including Indonesia, but the industry is gaining traction thanks to increasing consumer awareness. The COVID-19 pandemic also drove interest in financial planning, including investment and insurance, especially health coverage.

Other insurtech startups in Indonesia that have recently raised funding include Lifepal, PasarPolis, Qoala and Fuse.

In a statement, Sunday co-founder and chief executive officer Cindy Kuo said, “Awareness for health insurance will continue to increase and we believe more consumers would be open to shop for insurance online. We plan to expand our platform architecture to offer retail insurance to our health members and partners while we continue to grow our portfolio in Thailand and Indonesia.”

Shepherd raises $6.2M seed round to tackle the construction insurance market

By Alex Wilhelm

Shepherd, an insurtech startup focused on the construction market, has closed a $6.15 million seed round led by Spark Capital. The funding event comes after the startup raised a pre-seed round in February led by Susa Ventures, which also participated in Shepherd’s latest fundraising event.

Thinking broadly, Shepherd fits into a theme of neoinsurance providers selling more to other companies than to consumers. Insurtech startups serving consumers enjoyed years of venture capital backing only to find their public debuts met with early optimism followed quickly by eroding share prices.

But companies like Shepherd — and Blueprint Title earlier this week — are wagering on there being margin elsewhere in the insurance world to attack. For Shepherd, the construction market is its target, an industry that it intends to carve into starting with excess liability coverage.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, Justin Levine, told TechCrunch that contractors in the construction space have a number of insurance requirements, including general liability, commercial auto and so forth. But construction projects often also require more liability coverage, which is sold as excess or umbrella policies.

Targeting the middle-market of the construction space — companies doing $25 million to $250 million in projects per year, in its view — Shepherd wants to lean on technology as a way to help underwrite customers.

Levine said that his company’s offering will have two core parts. The first is what you expected, namely a complete digital experience for customers. The CEO likened its digital offering to table stakes for the insurtech world. We agree. But the company gets more interesting when we consider its second half, namely its work to partner with construction tech providers to help it make underwriting decisions.

The startup has partnered with Procore, for example, a company that invested in its business.

The concept of leaning on third-party software companies to help make underwriting decisions makes some sense — companies that are more technology-forward in terms of adopting new techniques and methods won’t have the same underwriting profile as companies that don’t. Generally, more data makes for better underwriting decisions; linking to the software that helps construction companies function makes good sense from that perspective.

The CEO of Procore agrees, telling TechCrunch that an early customer of his business said that its product is “a risk management solution disguised as construction management software.” The more risk that is managed, the lower Shepherd’s loss ratios may prove over time, allowing it to better compete on price.

On the subject of price, Levine thinks that the construction insurance market is suffering at the moment. Rising settlement costs have led to some legacy insurance books in the space with larger-than-anticipated losses, pushing some providers to raise prices. Levine’s view is that that Shepherd’s ability to enter its market without a legacy book of business will help it offer competitive rates.

Excess liability coverage is the “wedge” that Shepherd intends to use to get into the construction insurance market, it said, with intention of launching other products in time. The startup is attacking excess liability coverage first, its CEO said, because it’s the place of maximum pain in the larger construction insurance market.

Frankly, TechCrunch finds the B2B neoinsurance startup market fascinating. Selling policies to consumers has a particular set of cost of goods sold (COGS) — varying based on the type of coverage, of course — and often stark go-to-market costs. Furthermore, customer acquisition costs (CACs) can prove irksome when going up against national brands with huge budgets. Perhaps the business insurance market will prove more lucrative for upstart tech companies. Venture investors are certainly willing to place that particular wager.

Natalie Sandman led the deal for Spark, telling TechCrunch that when she first encountered Shepherd it was working on a different project, but that when it shifted its focus, it struck a chord with her firm. The investor said that the idea of bringing new data to the construction insurance underwriting process may help the company make smarter decisions. In the insurance world, better underwriting choices mean more profitable coverage. Which means greater future cash flows. And we all know that that means for value creation.

Tracking startup focus in the latest Y Combinator cohort

By Anna Heim

First, some housekeeping: Thanks to our new corporate parents, TechCrunch has the day off tomorrow, so consider this the last chapter of The Exchange for this week. (The newsletter will go out Saturday as always.) Also, Alex is off next week. Anna is taking on next week’s newsletter and may have a column or two on deck as well.

But before we slow down for a few days, let’s chat about the most recent Y Combinator Demo Day in thematic detail.

If you caught the last few Equity episodes, some of this will be familiar, but we wanted to put a flag in the ground for later reference as we cover startups for the rest of the year.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


What follows is a roundup of trends among Y Combinator startups and how they squared with our expectations.

A big thanks to the TechCrunch crew who covered the startup deluge live, and Natasha and Christine for helping build out our notes during our last few Twitter Spaces. Let’s talk trends!

More than expected

In a group of nearly 400 startups, you might think it’d be hard to find a category that felt overrepresented, but we’ve managed.

To start, we were surprised by the sheer number of startups in the cohort that were pursuing software models that incorporated no-code and low-code techniques. We expected some, surely, but not the nearly 20 that we compiled this morning.

Startups in the YC batch are building no-code and low-code tools to help developers build faster internal workflows (Tantl), build branded real estate portals (Noloco), sync data between other no-code tools (Whalesync), automate HR (Zazos), and more. Also in the mix were BrightReps, Beau, Alchemy, Hyperseed, Enso, HitPay, Whaly, Muse, Abstra, Lago, Inai and Breadcrumbs.io.

At least 18 companies in the group name-dropped no- and low-code in their pitches. They are taking on a host of industries, from finance and real estate to sales and HR. In short, no- and low-code tools are cropping up in what feels like every sector. It appears that the startup world has decided that helping non-developers build their own tools, workflows and apps is a trend here to stay.

Blueprint raises $16M Series B to grow its title-focused insurtech business

By Alex Wilhelm

Blueprint Title, an insurtech startup working in the title insurance space, announced this morning that it closed a $16 million Series B. The new round was led by Forté Ventures. The startup previously raised an $8.5 million Series A in the final weeks of 2019.

While Blueprint is an insurtech startup and therefore fits into the neoinsurance cohort that we’ve tracked in recent quarters as a number of companies from the group have gone public, it’s somewhat distinct. Blueprint is different from the Roots and MetroMiles and Hippos that debuted via traditional IPOs or SPACs; it largely sells to business customers and has a very different product on offer.

The neoinsurance companies that went public in the last year and a half sell to consumers. Blueprint, in contrast, sells to professional groups looking for a better title insurance experience. That means its customer base is not made up of consumers hoping to cover their main residence, Blueprint CEO Steve Berneman told TechCrunch in an interview.

That means that the company’s go-to-market activities are distinct from its mates in the consumer-focused cohort and that its loss profile is very different.

Title insurance, Berneman said, has around a 1% to 4% claims rate, far lower than auto insurance, to pick an example. That means its risk profile is different, and its pricing less flexible; there’s less loss ratio to wring out of title insurance underwriting, so cost and delivery of service are even more important than in other insurance varietals.

According to the CEO, the title insurance market in the United States today is made up of four companies with around 90% market share. And thanks to rules requiring public pricing in many states, there’s alignment on pricing from some leading players. The result of market concentration and effective price harmonization is that Berneman thinks that the $18 billion title insurance business should really be a $10 billion market.

Our call with Blueprint was the first in which a startup discussed shrinking its market.

But the point is reasonable; if title insurance is mispriced, and Blueprint sells to corporate customers, it can likely offer profitable coverage at a lower-than-market price point — and grow quickly in the process. That appears to be the case, with the startup stating in a release that it anticipates 400% revenue growth in 2021 when compared to 2020.

That growth rate explains the Nashville-based company’s most recent round and what we presume was a stiff upsizing in its valuation.

As part of its funding round announcement, Blueprint also disclosed that it has purchased Southwest Land Title Insurance Company, an underwriting company. Berneman said that to shrink the title insurance market through more reasonable pricing, his company needs to be full-stack, i.e., both writing its own coverage and selling it. Otherwise, margins would leak on either side of its operations.

Blueprint, akin to Next Insurance, is a startup bet that selling insurance to business customers will prove to be a lucrative effort. Given that consumer-focused neoinsurance providers have seen Wall Street change its tune on their value, it will be interesting to watch this more B2B cohort grow and eventually debut.

Insurify, a ‘virtual insurance agent,’ raises $100M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

How many of us have not switched insurance carriers because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of comparison shopping?

A lot, I’d bet.

Today, Insurify, a startup that wants to help people make it easier to get better rates on home, auto and life insurance, announced that it has closed $100 million in an “oversubscribed” Series B funding round led by Motive Partners.

Existing backers Viola FinTech, MassMutual Ventures, Nationwide, Hearst Ventures and Moneta VC also put money in the round, as well as new investors Viola Growth and Fort Ross Ventures. With the new financing, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Insurify has now raised a total of $128 million since its 2013 inception. The company declined to disclose the valuation at which the money was raised.

Since we last covered Insurify, the startup has seen some impressive growth. For example, it has seen its new and recurring revenue increase by “6x” since it closed its Series A funding in the 2019 fourth quarter. Over the last three years, Insurify has achieved a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 151%, according to co-founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia. It has also seen consistent “2.5x” year-over-year revenue growth, she said.

Insurify has built a machine learning-based virtual insurance agent that integrates with more than 100 carriers to digitize — and personalize — the insurance shopping experience. There are others in the insurtech space, but none that we know of currently tackling home, auto and life insurance. For example, Jerry, which has raised capital twice this year, is focused mostly on auto insurance, although it does have a home product. The Zebra, which became a unicorn this year, started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. Over time, it has also evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. But it too is mostly focused on auto.

Zacharia said that since Insurify’s Series A funding, it has expanded its home insurance marketplace, deepened its carrier integrations to provide users an “instant” purchase experience and launched its first two embedded insurance products through partnerships with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions and Nationwide (the latter of which also participated in the Series B funding round).

Image Credits: Insurify

Last year, when ShyScanner had to lay off staff, Insurify scooped up much of its engineering team and established an office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zacharia, a former Gartner executive, was inspired to start the company after she was involved in a minor car accident while getting her MBA at MIT. The accident led to a spike in her insurance premium and Zacharia was frustrated by the “complex and cumbersome” experience of car insurance shopping. She teamed up with CTO Tod Kiryazov to build Insurify, which the pair describe as a virtual insurance agent that offers real-time quotes.

“We decided to build the most trusted virtual insurance agent in the industry that allows for customers to easily search, compare and buy fully digitally — directly from their mobile phone, or desktop, and really get a very smart, personalized experience based on their unique preferences,” Zacharia told TechCrunch. “We leverage artificial intelligence to be able to make recommendations on both coverage as well as carrier selection.”

Notably, Insurify is also a fully licensed agent that takes over the fulfillment and servicing of the policies. Since the company is mostly working as an insurance agent, it gets paid new and renewed commission. So while it’s not a SaaS business, its embedded insurance offerings have SaaS-like monetization.

“Our goal is to provide an experience for the end consumer that allows them to service and manage all of their policies in one place, digitally,” Zacharia said. “We think that the data recommendations that the platform provides can really remove most of the friction that currently exists in the shopping experience.”

Insurify plans to use its fresh capital to continue to expand its operations and accelerate its growth plans. It also, naturally, wants to add to its 125-person team.

“We want to build into our API integrations so customers can receive real-time direct quotes with better personalization and a more tailored experience,” Kiryazov said. “We also want to identify more embedded insurance opportunities and expand the product functionality.”

The company also down the line wants to expand into other verticals such as pet insurance, for example.

Insurify intends to use the money in part to build brand awareness, potentially through TV advertising.

“Almost half of our revenue comes from self-directed traffic,” Zacharia said. “So we want to explore more inorganic growth.”

James “Jim” O’Neill, founding partner at Motive Partners and partner Andy Rear point out that online purchasing now accounts for almost all of the growth in U.S. auto insurance. 

“The lesson from other markets which have been through this transition is that customers prefer choice, presented as a simple menu of products and prices from different insurers, and a straightforward online purchasing process,” they wrote via email. “The U.S. auto market is huge: even a slow transition to online means a massive opportunity for Insurify.”

In conducting their due diligence, the pair said they were impressed with how the startup is building a business model “that works for customers, insurers and white-label partners.”

Harel Beit-On, founder and general partner at Viola Growth, believes that the quantum leap in e-commerce due to COVID-19 will completely transform the buying experience in almost every sector, including insurance.

“It is time to bring the frictionless purchasing experience that customers expect to the insurance space as well,” she said. “Following our fintech fund’s recent investment in the company, we watched Insurify’s immense growth, excellent execution with customer acquisition and building a brand consumers trust.”

Back to the suture: The future of healthcare is in the home

By Ram Iyer
Sumi Das Contributor
Sumi Das is a partner at CapitalG, Alphabet’s independent growth fund, where he leads healthcare tech and consumer fintech investments. Prior investments include Robinhood, Stripe, Convoy, Albert, Aye Finance, Next Insurance and Strive Health.
Nina Gerson Contributor
Nina Gerson is a vice president at CapitalG, Alphabet’s independent growth fund, where she co-leads healthcare tech investments. Prior investments include Strive Health and Next Insurance.

The pandemic has highlighted some of the brightest spots — and greatest areas of need — in America’s healthcare system. On one hand, we’ve witnessed the vibrancy of America’s innovation engine, with notable contributions by U.S.-based scientists and companies for vaccines and treatments.

On the other hand, the pandemic has highlighted both the distribution challenges and cost inefficiencies of the healthcare system, which now accounts for nearly a fifth of our GDP — far more than any other country — yet lags many other developed nations in clinical outcomes.

Many of these challenges stem from a lack of alignment between payment and incentive models, as well as an overreliance on hospitals as centers for care delivery. A third of healthcare costs are incurred at hospitals, though at-home models can be more effective and affordable. Furthermore, most providers rely on fee for service instead of preventive care arrangements.

These factors combine to make care in this country reactive, transactional and inefficient. We can improve both outcomes and costs by moving care from the hospital back to the place it started — at home.

Right now in-home care accounts for only 3% of the healthcare market. We predict that it will grow to 10% or more within the next decade.

In-home care is nothing new. In the 1930s, over 40% of physician-patient encounters took place in the home, but by the 1980s, that figure dropped to under 1%, driven by changes in health economics and technologies that led to today’s hospital-dominant model of care.

That 50-year shift consolidated costs, centralized access to specialized diagnostics and treatments, and created centers of excellence. It also created a transition from proactive to reactive care, eliminating the longitudinal relationship between patient and provider. In today’s system, patients are often diagnosed by and receive treatment from individual doctors who do not consult one another. These highly siloed treatments often take place only after the patient needs emergency care. This creates higher costs — and worse outcomes.

That’s where in-home care can help. Right now in-home care accounts for only 3% of the healthcare market. We predict that it will grow to 10% or more within the next decade. This growth will improve the patient experience, achieve better clinical outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.

To make these improvements, in-home healthcare strategies will need to leverage next-generation technology and value-based care strategies. Fortunately, the window of opportunity for change is open right now.

Five factors driving the opportunity for change

Over the last few years, five significant innovations have created new incentives to drive dramatic changes in the way care is delivered.

  1. Technologies like remote patient monitoring (RPM) and telemedicine have matured to a point that can be deployed at scale. These technologies enable providers to remotely manage patients in a proactive, long-term relationship from the comfort of their homes and at a reduced cost.

Indonesian D2C insurance marketplace Lifepal raises $9M Series A

By Catherine Shu

Choosing an insurance policy is one of the most complicated financial decisions a person can make. Jakarta-based Lifepal wants to simplify the process for Indonesians with a marketplace that lets users compare policies from more than 50 providers, get help from licensed agents and file claims. The startup, which says it is the country’s largest direct-to-consumer insurance marketplace, announced today it has raised a $9 million Series A. The round was led by ProBatus Capital, a venture firm backed by Prudential Financial, with participation from Cathay Innovation and returning investors Insignia Venture Partners, ATM Capital and Hustle Fund.

Lifepal was founded in 2019 by former Lazada executives Giacomo Ficari and Nicolo Robba, along with Benny Fajarai and Reza Muhammed. The new funding brings its total raised to $12 million.

The marketplace’s partners currently offer about 300 policies for life, health, automotive, property and travel coverage. Ficari, who also co-founded neobank Aspire, told TechCrunch that Lifepal was created to make comparing, buying and claiming insurance as simple as shopping online.

“The same kind of experience a customer has today on a marketplace like Lazada—the convenience, all digital, fast delivery—we saw was lacking in insurance, which is still operating with offline, face-to-face agents like 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.

Indonesia’s insurance penetration rate is only about 3%, but the market is growing along with the country’s gross domestic product thanks to a larger middle-class. “We are really at a tipping point for GDP per capita and a lot of insurance carriers are focusing more on Indonesia,” said Ficari.

Other venture-backed insurtech startups tapping into this demand include Fuse, PasarPolis and Qoala. Both Qoala and PasarPolis focus on “micro-policies,” or inexpensive coverage for things like damaged devices. PasarPolis also partners with Gojek to offer health and accident insurance to drivers. Fuse, meanwhile, insurance specialists an online platform to run their businesses.

Lifepal takes a different approach because it doesn’t sell micro-policies, and its marketplace is for customers to purchase directly from providers, not through agents.
Based on Lifepal’s data, about 60% of its health and life insurance customers are buying coverage for the first time. On the other hand, many automotive insurance shoppers had policies before, but their coverage expired and they decided to shop online instead of going to an agent to get a new one.

Ficari said Lifepal’s target customers overlap with the investment apps that are gaining traction among Indonesia’s growing middle class (like Ajaib, Pluang and Pintu). Many of these apps provide educational content, since their customers are usually millennials investing for the first time, and Lifepal takes a similar approach. Its content side, called Lifepal Media, focuses on articles for people who are researching insurance policies and related topics like personal financial planning. The company says its site, including its blog, now has about 4 million monthly visitors, creating a funnel for its marketplace.

While one of Lifepal’s benefits is enabling people to compare policies on their own, many also rely on its customer support line, which is staffed by licensed insurance agents. In fact, Ficari said about 90% of its customers use it.

“What we realize is that insurance is complicated and it’s expensive,” said Ficari. “People want to take their time to think and they have a lot of questions, so we introduced good customer support.” He added Lifepal’s combination of enabling self-research while providing support is similar to the approach taken by PolicyBazaar in India, one of the country’s largest insurance aggregators.

To keep its business model scalable, Lifepal uses a recommendation engine that matches potential customers with policies and customer support representatives. It considers data points like budget (based on Lifepal’s research, its customers usually spend about 3% to 5% of their yearly income on insurance), age, gender, family composition and if they have purchased insurance before.

Lifepal’s investment from ProBatus will allow it to work with Assurance IQ, the insurance sales automation platform acquired by Prudential Financial two years ago.

In a statement, ProBatus Capital founder and managing partner Ramneek Gupta said Lifepal’s “three-pronged approach” (its educational content, online marketplace and live agents for customer support) has the “potential to change the way the Indonesian consumer buys insurance.”

Part of Lifepal’s funding will be used to build products to make it easier to claim policies. Upcoming products include Insurance Wallet, which will include an application process with support on how to claim a policy—for example, what car repair shop or hospital a customer should go to—and escalation if a claim is rejected. Another product, called Easy Claim, will automate the claim process.

“The goal is to stay end-to-end with the customer, from reading content, comparing policies, buying and then renewing and using them, so you really see people sticking around,” said Ficari.

Lifepal is Cathay Innovation’s third insurtech investment in the past 12 months. Investment director Rajive Keshup told TechCrunch in an email that it backed Lifepal because “the company grew phenomenally last year (12X) and is poised to beat its aggressive 2021 plan despite the proliferation of the COVID delta variant, accentuating the fact that Lifepal is very much on track to replicate the success of similar global models such as Assurance IQ (US) and PolicyBazaar (India).”

Ethos picks up $100M at a $2.7B+ valuation for a big data platform to improve life insurance accessibility

By Ingrid Lunden

More than half of the U.S. population has stayed away from considering life insurance because they believe it’s probably too expensive, and the most common way to buy it today is in person. A startup that’s built a platform that aims to break down those conventions and democratize the process by making life insurance (and the benefits of it) more accessible is today announcing significant funding to fuel its rapidly growing business.

Ethos, which uses more than 300,000 data points online to determine a person’s eligibility for life insurance policies, which are offered as either term or whole life packages starting at $8/month, has picked up $100 million from a single investor, SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Peter Colis, Ethos’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding brings the startup’s valuation to over $2.7 billion.

This is a quick jump for the the company: it was only two months ago that Ethos picked up a $200 million equity round at a valuation of just over $2 billion.

It’s now raised $400 million to date and has amassed a very illustrious group of backers. In addition to SoftBank they include General Catalyst, Sequoia Capital; Accel; GV; Jay-Z’s Roc Nation; Glade Brook Capital Partners; Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr.

This latest injection of funding — which will be used to hire more people and continue to expand its product set into adjacent areas of insurance life critical illness coverage — was unsolicited, Colis said, but comes on the heels of very rapid growth.

Ethos — which is sold currently only in the U.S. across 49 states — has seen both revenues and user numbers grow by over 500% compared to a year ago, and it’s on track to issue some $20 billion in life insurance coverage this year. And it is approaching $100 million in annualized growth profit. Ethos itself is not yet profitable, Colis said.

There are a couple of trends going on that speak to a wide opportunity for Ethos at the moment.

The first of these is the current market climate: globally we are still battling the Covid-19 global health pandemic, and one impact of that — in particular given how Covid-19 has not spared any age group or demographic — has been more awareness of our mortality. That inevitably leads at least some part of the population to considering something like life insurance coverage that might not have thought about it previously.

However, Colis is a little skeptical on the lasting impact of that particular trend. “We saw an initial surge of demand in the Covid period, but then it regressed back to normal,” he said in an interview. Those who were more inclined to think about life insurance around Covid-19 might have come around to considering it regardless: it was being driven, he said, by those with pre-existing health conditions going into the pandemic.

That, interestingly, brings up the second trend, which goes beyond our present circumstances and Colis believes will have the more lasting impact.

While there have been a number of startups, and even incumbent providers, looking to rethink other areas of insurance such as car, health and property coverage, life insurance has been relatively untouched, especially in some markets like the U.S. Traditionally, someone taking out life insurance goes through a long vetting process, which is not all carried out online and can involve medical examinations and more, and yes, it can be expensive: the stereotype you might best know is that only wealthier people take out life insurance policies.

Much like companies in fintech who have rethought how loan applications (and payback terms) can be rethought and evaluated afresh using big data — pulling in a new range of information to form a picture of the applicant and the likelihood of default or not — Ethos is among the companies that is applying that same concept to a different problem. The end result is a much faster turnaround for applications, a considerably cheaper and more flexible offer (term life insurance lasts for only as long as a person pays for it to), and generally a lot more accessibility for everyone potentially interested. That pool of data is growing all the time.

“Every month, we get more intelligent,” said Colis.

There is also the matter of what Ethos is actually selling. The company itself is not an insurance provider but an “insuretech” — similar to how neobanks use APIs to integrate banking services that have been built by others, which they then wrap with their own customer service, personalization and more — Ethos integrates with third-party insurance underwriters, providing customer service, more efficient onboarding (no in-person medical exams for example) and personalization (both in packages and pricing) around them. Given how staid and hard it is to get more traditional policies, it’s essentially meant completely open water for Ethos in terms of finding and securing new customers.

Ethos’s rise comes at a time when we are seeing other startups approaching and rethinking life insurance also in the U.S. and further afield. Last week, YuLife in the UK raised a big round to further build out its own take on life insurance, which is to sell policies that are linked to an individual’s own health and wellness practices — the idea being that this will make you happier and give more reason to pay for a policy that otherwise feels like some dormant investment; but also that it could help you live longer (Sproutt is another also looking at how to emphasize the “life” aspect of life insurance). Others like  DeadHappy and BIMA are, like Ethos, rethinking accessibility of life insurance for a wider set of demographics.

There are some signs that Ethos is catching on with its mission to expand that pool, not just grow business among the kind of users who might have already been considering and would have taken out life insurance policies. The startup said that more than 40% of its new policy holders in the first half of 2021 had incomes of $60,000 or less, and nearly 40% of new policy holders were under the age of 40. The professions of those customers also speak to that democratization: the top five occupations, it said were homemaker, insurance agent, business owner, teacher, and registered nurse.

That traction is likely one reason why SoftBank came knocking.

“Ethos is leveraging data and its vertically integrated tech stack to fundamentally transform life insurance in the U.S.,” said Munish Varma, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Through a fast and user-friendly online application process, the company can accurately underwrite and insure a broad segment of customers quickly. We are excited to partner with Peter Colis and the exceptional team at Ethos.”

How we built an AI unicorn in 6 years

By Ram Iyer
Alex Dalyac Contributor
Alex Dalyac is the CEO and co-founder of Tractable, which develops artificial intelligence for accident and disaster recovery.

Today, Tractable is worth $1 billion. Our AI is used by millions of people across the world to recover faster from road accidents, and it also helps recycle as many cars as Tesla puts on the road.

And yet six years ago, Tractable was just me and Raz (Razvan Ranca, CTO), two college grads coding in a basement. Here’s how we did it, and what we learned along the way.

Build upon a fresh technological breakthrough

In 2013, I was fortunate to get into artificial intelligence (more specifically, deep learning) six months before it blew up internationally. It started when I took a course on Coursera called “Machine learning with neural networks” by Geoffrey Hinton. It was like being love struck. Back then, to me AI was science fiction, like “The Terminator.”

Narrowly focusing on a branch of applied science that was undergoing a paradigm shift which hadn’t yet reached the business world changed everything.

But an article in the tech press said the academic field was amid a resurgence. As a result of 100x larger training data sets and 100x higher compute power becoming available by reprogramming GPUs (graphics cards), a huge leap in predictive performance had been attained in image classification a year earlier. This meant computers were starting to be able to understand what’s in an image — like humans do.

The next step was getting this technology into the real world. While at university — Imperial College London — teaming up with much more skilled people, we built a plant recognition app with deep learning. We walked our professor through Hyde Park, watching him take photos of flowers with the app and laughing from joy as the AI recognized the right plant species. This had previously been impossible.

I started spending every spare moment on image classification with deep learning. Still, no one was talking about it in the news — even Imperial’s computer vision lab wasn’t yet on it! I felt like I was in on a revolutionary secret.

Looking back, narrowly focusing on a branch of applied science undergoing a breakthrough paradigm shift that hadn’t yet reached the business world changed everything.

Search for complementary co-founders who will become your best friends

I’d previously been rejected from Entrepreneur First (EF), one of the world’s best incubators, for not knowing anything about tech. Having changed that, I applied again.

The last interview was a hackathon, where I met Raz. He was doing machine learning research at Cambridge, had topped EF’s technical test, and published papers on reconstructing shredded documents and on poker bots that could detect bluffs. His bare-bones webpage read: “I seek data-driven solutions to currently intractable problems.” Now that had a ring to it (and where we’d get the name for Tractable).

That hackathon, we coded all night. The morning after, he and I knew something special was happening between us. We moved in together and would spend years side by side, 24/7, from waking up to Pantera in the morning to coding marathons at night.

But we also wouldn’t have got where we are without Adrien (Cohen, president), who joined as our third co-founder right after our seed round. Adrien had previously co-founded Lazada, an online supermarket in South East Asia like Amazon and Alibaba, which sold to Alibaba for $1.5 billion. Adrien would teach us how to build a business, inspire trust and hire world-class talent.

Find potential customers early so you can work out market fit

Tractable started at EF with a head start — a paying customer. Our first use case was … plastic pipe welds.

It was as glamorous as it sounds. Pipes that carry water and natural gas to your home are made of plastic. They’re connected by welds (melt the two plastic ends, connect them, let them cool down and solidify again as one). Image classification AI could visually check people’s weld setups to ensure good quality. Most of all, it was real-world value for breakthrough AI.

And yet in the end, they — our only paying customer — stopped working with us, just as we were raising our first round of funding. That was rough. Luckily, the number of pipe weld inspections was too small a market to interest investors, so we explored other use cases — utilities, geology, dermatology and medical imaging.

❌