Photo: Paul Desmarais III of Power Corp. in conversation with Diana Pliura of MyndTec Inc. at Insurance Disrupted.

“Literally, nearly everything can be done better in the consumer experience of insurance right now,” Paul Desmarais III said Tuesday at Insurance Disrupted, a Communitech-hosted event looking at how technology is changing one of Canada’s oldest and most traditional industries.

The scion of the Quebec-based Desmarais family, whose holding company, Power Corporation, is heavily invested in insurance, was in conversation with Diana Pliura, CEO at MyndTec Inc., for the event keynote.

He didn’t mince words:

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Paul Desmarais III emphasizes a point at Insurance Disrupted. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

“From the signup to the underwriting to the service… everything could be improved. In my mind, there are huge opportunities right now in insurance, even though it’s a regulated, complicated environment,” he said.

“The reality is that a lot of the incumbents in Canada are waking up and going ‘Oh my God, what is happening?'” Desmarais laughed. “. . . So there’s probably no greater moment to be in FinTech: capital is cheap, all the incumbents are scared out of their minds, and it’s a great time to be out there fundraising and looking for support.”

Insurance Disrupted was part of a two-day focus on insurance technology, which kicked off with Monday’s launch of FairVentures: Fairfax Financial Holdings’ innovation lab in the Communitech Hub. Fairfax is the latest large company to dock with Communitech’s corporate innovation program, joining General Motors, Thomson Reuters, TD Bank Group, Canon, Manulife and Deloitte.

Insurance industry leaders, high-potential startups and enterprise companies rubbed elbows and discussed the ideas and innovations bringing the 150-year-old industry into the 21st century – whether it’s ready or not.

“What I see as a big agent of disruption is big data, machine learning . . . the ability to underwrite people on massive quantities of publicly available data online,” said Desmarais. “Imagine a day where, based on your wearables, you can get quoted a daily life insurance rate, and you pay per day. So if I have one cigarette, my rate for the day goes up based on sensor data.”

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Diana Pliura laughs talking to Paul Desmarais III.(Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Genetic testing, omni-channel experiences, connected sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), online customer experience and acquisition, demographic change, even subversion of the insurance industry by paying for medical procedures on GoFundMe – everything was on the table.

For attendees, the breadth of the discussion was a huge part of the value.

George Tsintzouras, President and co-founder of Waterloo-based Alert Labs Inc., described it as “a perfect example of the value of Communitech to growing businesses like Alert Labs.” His company is an IoT startup deploying a sensor network in North America.

“In only a few hours,” Tsintzouras continued, “we had face-to-face access to senior members of multiple insurance companies where we were able to demonstrate our product’s value. This single event has the potential to significantly accelerate our business growth by building long-term relationships with key industry innovators.”

Four Communitech startups hand-picked for their high potential in the insurance industry – DOZRAIROAlaunus, and TitanFile – flanked the room with signage and one-pagers as throngs of insurance executives peppered them with questions.

Speaking events for the night ended with a lively panel: Davidson Pattiz, COO and Executive Vice-President at Zenith Insurance Company; Karen Cutler, Vice-President and Chief Underwriter at Manulife Financial; and Paul Mlodzik, Vice-President, Marketing and Communications at The Co-operators, were co-moderated by Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride and Deloitte Canada Senior Manager Mukul Ahuja.

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(From left): Kurtis McBride, Davidson Pattiz, Paul Mlodzik, Karen Cutler, and Mukul Ahuja. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

The panel darted hungrily from one topic to the next – how millennials want to buy insurance, the tension between regulation and innovation, and the impact of emerging technologies – but consensus grew around one idea: without gatherings like Insurance Disrupted and environments like Communitech, progress will stall.

“We all have internal groups,” said Pattiz. “We’ve done the process improvement teams, maybe brought in a consultant. For us at Fairfax, we have (FairVentures Director) Dave Kruis now. The good news about Dave is he sits here in a hive of ideas. Given the size of Fairfax and the capital requirements associated with the lab here, it’s a bargain. I probably shouldn’t say this in front of the Communitech people who charge me rent, listening . . . but part of our approach is that we need to expand the funnel of ideas. From being just external, or just consultants telling us what to do, to thinking that if there’s a 23-year-old kid in Kitchener-Waterloo that has an idea, I’m all for it.”

Special thanks to Karel Vuong for help with this reporting. 

About The Author

Phil Froklage
Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer

Phil Froklage is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Waterloo Region obsessed with the future. Passionate about science and technology — and how it shapes our world — Phil likes nothing more than being surprised by the amazing things human beings can do.