The words “venture capital” usually call to mind California-domiciled firms that dominate the VC space. The marquee names in the arena —Accel Partners, Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital and others — regularly make headlines with investments in Silicon Valley firms that are blazing new paths in the tech world.

Less often associated with venture capital are life insurers and their staid, button-down executives. This perception is increasingly antiquated.

In the last few years, several major carriers — American Family, AXA, Transamerica, MassMutual and USAA — have joined the venture capital fray. And if current trends are any guide, the group’s number is likely to grow.

According to “Yearbook 2016” of the National Venture Capital Association, the number of active VC firms increased in 2015 relative to 2014. Last year, 718 VC firms deployed $5 million-plus in companies in 2015. Of the total, 238 invested more than $5 million in first rounds for a company.

Venture capital under management, NVCA reveals, rose to $165.3 billion, reversing a three-year decline. New commitments to VC funds in the U.S. hit $28.2 billion last year. That nearly matches the $31.1 billion of 2014 and is well above 2013’s $19.9 billion.

Why are life insurers contributing to these huge sums? Executives interviewed by National Underwriter cite two drivers underpinning the launch of their venture capital arms: (1) access to technologies of seed-, early- and later-stage companies that can help advance strategic objectives; and (2) potentially lucrative financial returns on investment that can boost the carriers’ bottom lines.

The latter is not an insignificant consideration given that insurers have struggled in recent years to generate sizeable yields on their conventional portfolios (such as corporate bonds and Treasuries) in a historically low interest rate environment. But the companies’ VC investments are miniscule relative to their investable assets, which can run to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

Which brings us back to item (1), strategic objectives. This, executives say, is the weightier of the two drivers and the principal filter through which the VC units judge the merits of tech companies being considered for capital funding.

“The idea of our strategic venture fund was to create a vehicle through which we can gain access to ideas early in their life cycle,” says Manish Agarwal, a general partner at AXA Strategic Ventures, which oversees a $200 million venture capital fund on behalf of the Paris-based insurer. “Of particular interest are emerging innovations relevant to insurance, asset management, financial technology and health care services industries. Many of these innovations, we expect, will help us improve our core insurance and asset management businesses. We also hope to derive a strategic benefit in learning about what start-ups are doing.”

AXA’s goals are mirrored in the aims of other carriers with venture capital arms. But their objectives only partially overlap: Some insurers focus more narrowly on solutions that can improve existing business processes. Others with broader aims are investing in technologies that may not yield immediate benefit, but could be more far-reaching in impact.

The VC funding also cuts across an impressively varied range of IT disciplines. Take Transamerica Ventures. A unit of the Netherlands-based Aegon N.V., the venture capital firm targets companies that are developing software with applications for financial technologies and services, big data and analytics, digital marketing, sales and social media. Seed and early-stage companies with enterprise IT, content/publishing and mobile applications also are receiving VC dollars.

Transamerica aims to harness market-ready solutions resulting from these investments for multiple objectives. Among them: enhancing front-end web portals and media with which customers and Transamerica’s brokers and advisors interact; and revamping back-end IT structures, including aging legacy systems that manage policy administration, marketing, sales, finance and underwriting.

The investments are already bearing fruit. Case-in-point: a personal benchmarking tool from NextCapital that brings together individuals’ investment accounts — 401(k)s, IRAs, mutual funds and brokerage accounts — and lets them see how the vehicles are performing relative to their investment strategy.

“This is a solution we’re now providing to Transamerica’s customers,” says Transamerica Ventures CEO George Schegle. “But the service can also be used by brokers who are interfacing with consumers. So there’s potentially a dual benefit.”

Typically, he adds, Transamerica Ventures is one among several institutional investors that are investing in tech start-ups like Next Capital. In some cases, competing life insurers are also ponying up capital for a promising company.

A prime example is Policy Genius. The New York-based business provides an online platform for people to buy several types of insurance: life, disability income, renters and pet insurance. The site includes an “insurance checkup” feature to determine how much coverage an applicant needs. Prospects can also get a quote, access educational resources and complete an application online.

Backing PolicyGenius along with Transamerica Ventures are AXA Strategic Ventures and MassMutual Ventures. Intriguingly, insurance products from just one of three carriers —Transamerica — are part of the product mix, which also includes offerings from AIG, American General, Guardian Life, MetLife, ING, and Principal Financial.

Why invest in a website for insurance products if your company isn’t on the virtual shelf?

“We separate our investment activities from our commercial activities,” says AXA’s Agarwal. “We invested in PolicyGenius because we believe in the company and their platform.”

Agarwal notes also that AXA is interested in learning from PolicyGenius’ business model, while also driving sales to their online platform. The start-up is also targeting a market segment — the mass affluent — that’s additive to AXA’s core business.

Also with a view to delivering added value, insurers’ venture capital units are investing in life-enhancing solutions that can be used to lower policyholders’ premiums after the sale. In the life insurance space, technologies of interest include Internet-connected wearable devices (think Fitbit) that can track — both for the user and an insurer in contact with the device — such health-related activities as heart rate, quality of sleep, distance walked or calories burned.

Many new technologies hold promise in the property and casualty arenas as well. American Family, for example, has invested in Keen Home, a developer of home automation products; and 1Concern, which provides rapid damage estimates across natural disasters using artificial intelligence.

Also in this category are Chai, a developer of devices that help homeowners understand their real-time energy use; Carvoyant, maker of Internet-connected car systems and data; and Ring, a Wi-Fi enabled video doorbell that lets you answer your door from anywhere with a Smartphone. The unit’s video motion capture feature can also detect activity on a property and trigger instant mobile alerts.

The various technologies dovetail with the three-pronged thematic focus of American Family’s VC unit: insurance innovation, connectivity (including vehicle telematics, home automation and wearables), and analytics solutions that distinguish patterns from massive flows of data, enabling companies to predict and improve business performance.

“Big data is a reflection of the huge amount of information in the world, which is increasing at a rapid rate,” says Dan Reed, a managing director of American Family Ventures. “We need tools to drive market insights.”

Yet, determining which of the myriad of tech start-ups and technologies to bet VC money on can be a challenge — and a risk. Like new businesses in other sectors, many of the tech start-ups fail because their strategic focus, products or services don’t align with market demands. Often, too, top executives at the companies aren’t up to the task.

The competitive hurdles can be especially high in the tech sector, where software development proceeds at breakneck speed and where the marketplace can be unforgiving when new products fail to meet expectations.

Thus, insurers’ venture capitalists need to be disciplined about how and where they allocate their investment dollars. That demands a vetting process that can reliably identify companies more likely than not to survive and thrive.

At USAA, which serves military service members and their families, the due diligence starts with the insurer’s strategic focus: tailoring investments to early- and growth-stage companies focused on banking, investments, insurance, financial readiness, information security and digital capabilities.

When evaluating target companies, USAA’s 14-person corporate development team uses a “proprietary scorecard” and compares the proposed VC funding with alternative investments. If the score looks “compelling,” the company seeks an “internal business partner” to sponsor the VC engagement.

“If a USAA business sponsor wants the product or service, if members’ lives can be improved, and the investment is on appropriate terms, we will normally invest,” says Nathan McKinley, head of USAA Corporate Development. “We like to invest in companies where we plan to use their product or service.”

To be sure, the corporate development team doesn’t have the final say on venture capital outlays. The sponsoring executive must secure the approval of a team of executives overseeing a particular business line, and ultimately get the OK of senior executives at USAA.

This filtering process is mirrored at other insurers with venture capital arms. But elements of the “scorecard” (USAA was mum on these) and the values attached to them vary in tandem with the different strategic objectives.

Transamerica Ventures’ Schwegler says the company favors fast-growing starts-up that offer “scalable solutions” — products or services that can be easily upgraded or expanded on demand. But where the insurer’s core businesses are concerned, the preference is for “advanced start-ups” that have a demonstrated track record and are aiming to grow faster.

They may also be firms that are looking for competitive insights into the insurance space or that want to accelerate the release of a product or service. Reed says American Family’s VC team provides tech companies expertise so they can better customize solutions for the insurance space.

But the brunt of the bounty is the VC funding. And it can be sizable.

MassMutual Ventures went to market in 2014 with a $100 million fund targeted at companies investing in technologies that are top priorities for the insurer. Among them: cybersecurity, data analytics, digital health portals like insurance exchanges, as well as fintech solutions, including mobile payments, alternate lending and automated wealth management services.

Checks for start-ups specializing in these areas, says Doug Russell, a managing director and senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at MassMutual Ventures, typically vary between $2 and $ 5 million. The VC outlays can go above or below this range, depending on the start-up’s funding needs, its strategic importance to the insurer and (not least) the involvement of other venture capital firms.

Indeed, MassMutual and its industry peers are often just one among a number of VC players investing in pioneering tech companies. The funders include large financial services institutions hoping to ride the innovation wave: HSBC, Santander, Sberbank, Barclays, and others. Frequently, too, one of these large institutions will act as the lead funder.

The pooling of VC dollars across multiple entities thus limits the financial exposure of the individual funders — though not necessarily the potential for an outsized return.

“Because we’re investing in early-stage companies, we expect a high failure rate,” says American Family Ventures’ Reed. “But we expect to make up for the losses with a small number of winners that perform extremely well — on the order of 10 to 50 times the return on our invested capital.”

This petite pool of tech stars can have a huge impact not only on insurers’ bottom line, but on the insurance business as a whole. Indeed, the industry consensus is that technological disruption of long-standing business practices is coming. The only question is whether insurers will be part of the innovation — or be swept aside by more tech-savvy and agile players. Alas, only time will tell.

Go to the next page to view charts detailing venture capital investments by industry sector. Click on the images to enlarge.

 

See also:

The “Uber of Insurance” is here

The startups that give you a second opinion on costly surgery

VC firm says insurance is one of the most important tech trends in the world

 

Venture Capital Investments by Industry 2015

 

Venture Capital dollar share in health care industry 2014