by George Walmsley
Possibly the best named of the rash of insurtech organisations and initiatives currently hitting the market, LOFT – that’s Manulife’s acronymically cunning Lab Of Forward Thinking – had its official launch in Asia just last week. But the Singapore operation is just the most recent iteration of an initiative that started in Boston more than 18 months ago and gathered momentum with the opening of a Toronto operation last December.
So what is LOFT all about? In essence, it’s a permanent taskforce of, for the moment, 25 full-time staff across the three centres, mostly from ‘deep-tech’ backgrounds, beavering away on highly focused and innovative tech-based solutions to problems that are passed down from the business – anything from customer strategy to implementation of the Internet of Things. The team lives and breathes in a style that is explicitly and deliberately distinct from and unfettered by the ‘traditional’ operations of Manulife.
And yet, as Ryan Fox, AVP & head of emerging delivery and platforms, makes abundantly clear, LOFT is not an island: “We always need a bridge to the business – we need the business to scale what we do and take it to consumers,” he says.
In the uber-techy, flashily modern, don’t-be-seen-dead-in-a-business-suit Fusionopolis office precinct that lies a few kilometres west of Singapore’s downtown core, the thinking behind LOFT manifests itself in a smallish, overtly funky office where Fox and his team of impressively cerebral colleagues work either on their own or collegiately with start-ups and other external parties. A video wall, mushroom-shaped stools that you can’t quite sit down on, lime sofas, plants, loafers worn with no socks – you get the picture.
The team works on a small number of focused ‘concepts’ (they aren’t referred to as ‘projects’ – that would be too ‘defined’). Once the problem has been passed down, the solution is found on a ‘go explore’ basis; out-of-the-box thinking needs to be the norm, so everything about the operation, including the location, never comes close to being ‘in the box’. Funding comes from corporate and the team seeks what they call ‘champions’ (of the tech cause) in the traditional business to nut out the detail of problems and the implementation of the solutions to them, and a key KPI is ‘experiments run and number of employees in the business touched’, but otherwise this unit is there to drive innovation from the outside.
LOFT leverages external start-ups in the insurtech and fintech space through work alliances – often to provide or help work through ‘raw’ technologies, and the brains in LOFT will also recommend and help assess start-up acquisition or investment targets for the business. LOFT also has a couple of HR arrows in its virtual quiver: it has carried out tech-related training for hundreds of staff; and evidence shows its presence alone puts some sparkle in companywide recruitment programs.
Given these things, and the general tech imperative starting to pervade the insurance industry, it’s no wonder that LOFT enjoys what Fox describes as “an incredible amount of senior executive support”.