Some marriages are made in heaven. Some are made in Communitech’s home at the Tannery. This would be a story about the latter.

But first cue up the happy couple: Encircle, the little tech startup with a big idea, and Northbridge Insurance, which just happened to take a shine to Encircle’s big idea. Oh, and let’s not forget the FairVentures innovation lab, Northbridge’s corporate sibling and something of a happy brother-in-law for this blessed union.

Encircle’s CEO, Paul Donald, set out with his team 4½ years ago to reinvent the insurance business, developing an app that leveraged a mobile phone’s camera and simplified the claims process for customer and insurer alike. Once he had a product he was happy with, he approached Northbridge, who liked what Encircle was pitching, and soon enough a pilot was set up in the summer of 2015.

Northbridge is a Fairfax company. Fairfax is a Canadian investment firm that has been likened to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, with assets in the tens of billions. A little more than a year ago, in November of 2015, Fairfax established an innovation lab on the ground floor at Communitech called FairVentures. Not long afterward, Fairfax took an investment position in Encircle. Encircle, by the way, works out of a space two floors above the FairVentures lab. You see where this is going: One happy family.

“It’s been a win-win for sure,” says George Halkiotis, the Executive Vice-President of Claims at Northbridge.

The win-win began with Donald’s conviction that the insurance industry was ripe for some improvement.

“[The insurance claim process] was just a completely broken interaction,” says Donald. “What you had were policy holders that didn’t trust the insurance company, insurance companies didn’t trust the policy holders. There was distrust all over the place because of the lack of visual evidence. Everything was done through a written or verbal transaction. Whenever you leave things ambiguous, the natural tendency is not to trust it.”

Encircle’s platform helps eliminate the ambiguity by offering real-time photographic evidence. Instead of an insurance representative driving out to look at, for example, damage to a car, then making a report and submitting it for approval, Encircle’s app links the policy holder, the claims desk and the adjuster in real time. The policy holder takes photos using their phone and everyone sees the damage evidence immediately.

“[The transparency] is a huge advantage,” Halkiotis says. “In the past, the client would send information through the mail, and then it’s a trust issue. [The client would wonder]: Did the adjuster get it? Are they evaluating it? Now the client is part of the process. They feel like they’re part of the claim and that they feel like they have a say in the direction of the claim. As a result, they feel a lot more comfortable with the decisions that are made.”

Donald describes a typical auto claim processed with Encircle like this:

“Within 19 minutes to 30 minutes the appraisal has been approved, signed off by the policy holder and money transferred to the policy holder’s account.”

In other words, a process that used to take days or weeks unfolds in minutes. Not only are customers happier – Northbridge has seen a sharp uptick in its customer satisfaction metrics – but so too are employees. Routine paperwork, filling out forms, needless legwork, have been eliminated.

“Our people say things like, ‘This is making my job easier. It’s making my job fun again,’ ” says Halkiotis.

Although the Encircle-Northbridge relationship predates the installation of the FairVentures lab, the lab has played an important role since, acting as a bridge between Encircle and Northbridge, as well as other Fairfax companies.

“Once that initial pilot occurred, we got feedback from Northbridge,” explains FairVentures Director Dave Kruis. “They came back and said this [app] is fantastic. Then we kicked off an initiative to bring Paul and Encircle into the other Fairfax companies.” Specifically, an introduction was made at a collision day back in February of 2016.

Encircle now has 24 employees and Donald says as soon as his company hits the five-year mark – August 2017 – “you’ll see us scale.”

“We continue to endorse and support the rollout,” says Kruis. “I would expect a year from now Encircle will be deployed at the lion’s share of Fairfax insurance companies.”

All in the family. That’s how marriages work.

About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.