Cool Insurance Products Finally on the Horizon

Homeowners Insurance, Insurance
Car insurance.

When you think cutting-edge, insurance might not make a blip on the mental screen. But thanks to hot technology, insurance is getting — dare we say it? — kind of cool.

Take Lemonade, a new peer-to-peer insurer offering renters and homeowners insurance in New York. You pick a charity when buying coverage, and the money is pooled with payments from other customers. After Lemonade pays for expenses and claims, it sends any unused money from the pool to the nonprofits.

Lemonade co-founder and CEO Daniel Schreiber says the company wanted to rebuild the insurance business model, remaking insurance “as a social good rather than a necessary evil.”

Generally the U.S. has lagged behind when it comes to innovative insurance products. But that may change, and Lemonade is one example of things likely to come.

Pressure to innovate

Investment in tech companies that design apps and other tools for the insurance industry hit $1 billion in the first half of 2016; 63% of the deals went to U.S.-based startups, according to tech market analyst CB Insights. If the pace continues, the deal volume will beat 2015’s total by 42%, CB Insights projects.

U.S. insurers are courting tech startups to launch products for today’s more demanding customers, says Neal Baumann, global insurance leader for consulting firm Deloitte.

Consumers’  expectations for convenient and fast service are set by companies like Amazon, not just other insurers, he says.  “The bar is set far higher than in the past.”

With Lemonade, there are no agents or paperwork. Enter your address, answer a few questions, and you can get covered or file a claim in minutes through an app. A simple claim can be paid almost instantly, the money wired to your bank.

Lemonade says its New York renters insurance rates start at $5 a month and homeowners rates start at $35 a month. The company says its rates tend to be cheaper than those of traditional carriers, especially for renters who need relatively small amounts of coverage. Starting rates for Lemonade’s renters insurance are half or less of what some of the biggest insurers charge. However, a cheaper rate may not be the case for every renter or homeowner.

The pressure to innovate is affecting every corner of the insurance business. In 2015, John Hancock Insurance became the first U.S. life insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who exercise and record their activity with fitness trackers or get flu shots and health screenings. This year it expanded its Vitality option to reward people for buying healthy food. Besides lower life insurance rates, you can earn cash back on grocery bills and get perks such as Starbucks gift cards and hotel discounts for meeting fitness goals.

What took so long?

Still, other countries are ahead in getting products on the market. Lots of cool stuff is available abroad:

  • Trov: In Australia, you can buy on-demand insurance for belongings through Trov. You pick an item you want to insure, such as a laptop or camera. Using a cell phone app, you swipe the coverage on when you need it and off when you don’t.
  • Fluo: In France, Fluo analyzes the travel insurance you may already have through your credit cards and sells you additional travel coverage to fill the gaps. You request an analysis and get an answer in two minutes through an app. The company says it soon will be able to analyze customers’ homeowners insurance policies.
  • Bought by Many: In the United Kingdom and China, London-based Bought by Many lets you join others with similar needs and challenges to find affordable coverage. The company negotiates with insurers to get the best rates for the group on various types of insurance. Examples of U.K. groups include bearded-dragon owners seeking pet insurance, people with Crohn’s disease shopping for travel insurance, and art collectors seeking home insurance. The bargaining power saves members an average of 18.6%, the company says.

51 hurdles

One reason the U.S. lags behind other countries is how insurance is regulated. Here, each state regulates insurance, so to roll out a product nationwide, insurers have to get approval from 51 insurance departments representing the states and the District of Columbia. Launching a product elsewhere is often simpler because a company gets approval from a single governmental authority.

“Each state is like another country,” says Scott Walchek, founder and CEO of Trov, which is based in San Francisco. “You have to go through each regulatory process, and each one is different.”

After founding Trov in 2012, Walchek went looking for insurance company partners. He says insurers in other countries were more willing to take risks on a new product. However, he says, a sea change has occurred in the past 18 months, with U.S. insurers now seeking out startups like his. Trov plans to launch the service in the U.S. in 2017.

Schreiber of Lemonade acknowledges the steep regulatory challenges here. But thanks to the huge market, he says, the U.S. is “the biggest prize.”

Barbara Marquand is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: bmarquand@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @barbaramarquand.