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Updated: July 22, 2019

Hartford has its next crop of insurtech hopefuls

HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper Renu Ann Joseph, founder of Switzerland-based Luminant Analytics, was the first entrepreneur selected to Nassau Re’s new insurtech incubator program, which will run for at least the next three years. In the photo, Joseph is standing in the incubator’s 48,000-square-foot space in Nassau Re’s Boat Building in downtown Hartford.

In a fifth-floor corner of downtown Hartford’s iconic Boat Building, the city’s newest cohort of insurtech startups is quickly making connections with the region’s outsized insurance sector.

A dozen early stage startups migrated downtown this year to participate in Nassau Re’s new insurtech incubator, which for at least the next three years will offer domestic and international entrepreneurs more than 48,000 square feet of flexible workspace to gain clout in various emerging corners of the insurance industry.

Operated by entrepreneurial promoter Insurtech Hartford, which also helps with program development and recruitment, organizers are hopeful participating entrepreneurs will create a permanent home downtown and help grow the city’s insurtech workforce as it provides them with marketing, legal and networking opportunities to score new clients and capital.

The so-called Nassau Re/Imagine incubator regularly sets up meetings between entrepreneurs and potential investors and insurance companies looking to develop a pilot program to streamline their services. Nassau Re’s social-media channels also showcase the startups through promotional videos and podcast interviews airing on Spotify.

Many of the dozen startups selected into the five-month-old program are newcomers to Hartford, with just one hailing from Connecticut (Simsbury) and roughly half from outside the U.S., including Ukraine, Canada and Australia, according to organizers.

Nassau Re/Imagine joins a growing network of incubator, accelerator and tech-training programs in the Capital City, including Stanley+Techstars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator, reSET Social Enterprise Trust and a recently announced medical-technology and digital-health accelerator spearheaded by Hartford HealthCare and several partners. There’s also incubator and coworking venue Upward Hartford, which hosts Hartford InsurTech Hub, run by London-based Startupbootcamp.

While each program is distinct, there are some common threads.

For example, Startupbootcamp will also run the recently announced healthcare accelerator, to be located at Constitution Plaza.

InsurTech Hartford, a networking and professional-services provider founded by AXA XL Vice President Stacey Brown, is separate from the Hartford InsurTech Hub program, though both entities are housed in the Stilts Building and hold programming and events at Upward Hartford’s space there.

Some of the incubator programs have received state funds, while others — including Nassau Re/Imagine — have not.

There’s also been overlap among participants in the programs.

Several members of Nassau Re’s inaugural cohort had already been in Connecticut as of last year, when they participated in Hartford InsurTech Hub’s week-long Selection Days program, which connects entrepreneurs with area insurance mentors for product and marketing development and potential partnerships.

Meet the cohort

Marnus van Heerden, a South Africa native and co-founder of peer-to-peer insurance app Pineapple, participated in the Hartford InsurTech Hub last year before being accepted into Nassau Re’s incubator this spring.

His startup now has dual headquarters in South Africa and Hartford.

The Pineapple app, launched in 2018, allows users to insure nearly any individual item in under a minute with the snap of a mobile phone camera.

Marnus van Heerden, co-founder of South Africa’s Pineapple app, is participating in Nassau Re’s Hartford incubator.

For example, users looking for insurance for their phone, laptop, bike, drone or watch, can take a photo and Pineapple’s artificial intelligence will detect what kind of product it is and categorize it. Input how much the item is worth and the app automatically calculates a premium payment. After submitting credit card information, the user is insured. The app already has 14,500 users in South Africa.

Pineapple still has to tweak its app to ensure it complies with domestic regulations, Van Heerden said, but he hopes to launch the product in the U.S. later this year.

Pineapple recently inked a partnership with an insurance carrier in Greater Hartford — a deal it plans to announce publicly in the next two months.

The incubator has connected 29-year-old Van Heerden and fellow co-founder Matthew Elan Smith, both stationed at the Boat Building, to numerous fundraising opportunities with property-and-casualty insurers.

Van Heerden says Pineapple hopes to establish a permanent residence downtown because it has forged promising relationships during its time here so far. It’s also a cheaper landing spot than Boston and New York, and Hartford’s insurtech ecosystem, he says, has strong support from local officials, insurance carriers and Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture investor.

“The fact that we are ready to get going on something and it’s only been about five months says a great deal about how open this community is to collaboration and innovation,” said Van Heerden, who lives within walking distance of the Boat Building. “At this point it makes so much sense to be here because our partners are here. We want to be part of this ecosystem.”

Predicting risk

Switzerland-based Luminant Analytics, led by founder Renu Ann Joseph, was another Hartford InsurTech Hub participant recruited into the Nassau Re/Imagine incubator.

Joseph, who moved to the U.S. from India in 2002, is more than a year into piloting her business-to-business software, which calculates analytical insights and predictive models for insurance companies to evaluate risk and pricing.

She’s currently looking to partner with a commercial auto or life insurance carrier to transition her business out of its pilot stage. Her focus over the next two quarters centers on gaining visibility with insurers. That’s where Nassau Re’s promotional services comes into play.

“By giving us visibility and putting us in front of people that matter, we are building longer viability,” she said.

Joseph, who is currently self funding her enterprise, sees her desktop-based platform becoming a key tool for underwriters assessing risk and actuaries who price that risk. In practice, the platform could help insurers determine whether they should cover a trucking company by compiling and calculating traffic data, a state’s economic environment or certain characteristics of the driver and truck fleets.

“The product could take on the shape of what the first few clients want,” said Joseph, 40, who has over five part- and full-time staffers. “I think it’s an interesting journey for the insurance companies to be a part of.”

She decided to stay in Hartford last fall after being named among the top 22 startups in the second annual Hartford InsurTech Hub Selection Days accelerator program. Soon after, she heard about the upcoming Nassau Re incubator and eventually became the first startup to be accepted into the program in February.

The Boat Building now serves as Luminant’s U.S. headquarters, and Joseph hopes the city will become its permanent home for at least a cluster of employees following her tenure at the incubator. Luminant’s long-term presence in Hartford, she says, will ultimately depend on funding and whether Hartford is seen as being insurtech friendly among prospective hires.

“The incubator gives us a base to establish contacts, marketing and legal services,” she said. “These are all very valuable for an early stage company.”

Meeting stakeholders

Another India native, Neeraja Rasmussen, has also made her way to the Nassau Re incubator.

Rasmussen established a platform two years ago called Spyglaz that uses machine-learning algorithms to predict which potential customers a business is likely to lose. In Hartford, Rasmussen has been talking to area insurers about potential partnerships as she gears up to launch an insurance-focused pilot.

Photo | Contributed
Neeraja Rasmussen, founder of Silicon Valley-based Spyglaz, which is a CRM-related software.

Based in San Mateo, Calif., Rasmussen heard about Hartford’s newest incubator program through a local business-development advisor.

Rasmussen recently made her first visit to the downtown incubator space, and was welcomed by meetings with key stakeholders at Nassau Re, local economic-development officials and others from Startupbootcamp.

She plans to work at the incubator at least once or twice a month, and sees a long-term future for Spyglaz in the “Heartland of Insurance” given the area’s talented workforce and operational costs being 30 percent lower in Hartford vs. Silicon Valley.

“At this stage, it’s all about traction. Getting in front of the right people with your story is a really important part of making progress,” Rasmussen said. “This was my first time in Hartford and I was just incredibly blown away by how supportive and nice people are. I get the feeling that they are really vested in your success.”

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