‘Instant Everything’ in Insurance: With Nigel Fellowes-Freeman, CEO of Kanopi and Tetiana George, Co-Founder & CEO of Curium
Nigel: Hi, I’m Nigel Fellowes-Freeman, the founder and CEO of Kanopi. We are a data-driven embedded insurance platform that helps insurers deliver embedded insurance to customers seamlessly, wherever and whenever they need it. Thank you for joining us today on Building Tomorrow’s Insurer.
In this episode, we have Tetiana George, the co-founder of Curium, a no-code SaaS platform that handles all aspects of claims-related operations, from Lodgment to reporting and payment, at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional providers. This is fantastic news for those concerned about costs, and it forms the foundation of their business. Tetiana is an unconventional creator in the insurance industry, driven by core values of technical excellence and meeting customer expectations for instant service. I particularly liked the phrase “the Netflix of compliance,” which we’ll explore further in our conversation. Tetiana, thank you for being here. I’m excited to dive into our discussion.
Tetiana: Thank you, Nigel. That’s an excellent summary.
From Ukraine’s Turmoil to Insurance Innovation: A Journey of Resilience and Growth
Nigel: Whenever you need someone for startup pitches, count me in. But before we delve into Curium, let’s start from the beginning. I’m interested in hearing about your history and how you ended up where you are today, considering you’ve been involved in the industry for quite some time.
Tetiana: Sure, Nigel. One aspect I rarely discuss is my Ukrainian background. I come from Ukraine, and while my country has been in the news for various reasons, it’s an exciting history that has shaped my journey. I am part of the first generation born in independent Ukraine, following the transition from an absolute totalitarian state to a market economy. It was like a free fall without a parachute.
During my upbringing, it was a complete Wild West scenario. Insurance wasn’t even considered. People lost all their financial security overnight because the state used to provide savings, pensions, social security, healthcare, and education. Suddenly, everything vanished, and individuals were left to fend for themselves. People had to start from scratch, accumulating wealth and rebuilding their lives.
Now, 30 years later, many have lost their wealth once again. Ukraine is plagued by a massive uninsurance problem, with constant discussions. Even a minor event, like rain or something less significant than war, can throw your livelihood into chaos. It’s a constant source of stress when there’s no plan B, no way to mitigate the risks of unexpected or catastrophic events. In short, this experience led me to develop an interest in an industry I never realised could do so much good.
In 2007, while in Switzerland, I worked for an audit company that audited insurers. Soon, I realised I was better suited to shaping the future than focusing on the past. That’s when I joined Boston Consulting Group, specifically their insurance practice. Over the years, I’ve worked in more than 20 countries, with major international insurers and smaller ones, across various lines of business, including life, non-life, and health.
Six years ago, when I arrived in Australia, I started working with a relatively new insurer called Blue Zebra. I played a crucial role in building their claims operation from scratch. In just 18 months, we went from zero to millions of dollars, and within three years, we expanded from two to six products. It was an intense learning journey on scaling operations efficiently.
Creating Curium: Seizing the Opportunity to Innovate during a Crisis
Nigel: That’s truly impressive. So, from Blue Zebra, you leapt Curium. I’m intrigued by that transition. There must have been a driving force or a vision that inspired you to move from a fast-growing MGA to starting your own company. Can you share the kernel of inspiration that led to that decision?
Tetiana: Absolutely. The world is divided into two types of people: creators and consumers. There’s no judgment in either category, as some individuals don’t enjoy the process of creating. It comes with risks, failures, and disapproval. I love creating, and my extensive international experience has taught me valuable lessons.
Here in Australia, I gained a deep understanding of the business. At some point, I felt ready to embark on an experiment and solve a problem. While building the Blue Zebra operation, I quickly realised the scaling limitations and what the industry could do. When faced with a problem, the immediate response is to throw more people at it. However, sometimes people themselves become the problem. The more individuals you add to the chain, the bigger the issues become—human error, reporting discrepancies, oversight, quality assurance, etc. People can inadvertently complicate matters.
Recognising this, I thought, “There must be a better way.” I was surprised that I couldn’t find an existing solution on the market. This realisation and my innate drive to create led me to believe that the time was ripe to take action. In 2020, amid the lockdown, like everyone else, I founded Curium. I remembered a phrase from one of the Silicon Valley tech guys during the previous crisis, the GFC: “Never waste a good crisis.” So, while sitting at home during the pandemic, I thought, “I have the time, so let’s do something about it.”
Redefining Growth: Efficient Resource Allocation and Empowered Teams
Nigel: That’s a fascinating perspective. I agree with you that some of the most influential companies in the world have emerged from challenging environments. These tough situations often give rise to remarkable innovations, whether during a global financial crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing from your extensive consulting experience across various regions and industries and your deeper involvement in an MGA, what specific aspects from both experiences have shaped your approach to startup life? What elements do you rely on daily, and how have they contributed to building and growing your business?
Tetiana: One significant experience that stands out from my early career, particularly during the post-GFC period, was cost-cutting measures. It was a challenging and unpleasant task that I had to undertake multiple times across different companies and locations.
Large organisations faced the dilemma of adapting their business models to survive or facing the risk of failure. To survive, they resorted to cutting costs, often involving workforce reductions. As a people person, I witnessed the profound impact of these decisions on individuals’ lives. Although I never personally fired anyone, I executed the management’s directives to implement these cuts.
Reflecting on those experiences, I realised that a business’s growth and downsizing cycle is typical. However, it made me question the traditional approach of hiring extensively to address problems and later having to let people go. I started to think, “Is there a better way?” Do we need to grow in a manner that involves indiscriminately throwing people at problems and not needing them later on? This line of thinking influenced my approach to technology development and team building.
When building technology solutions, I prioritise ensuring they provide value and contribute to the top line rather than displacing jobs or cutting staff. Similarly, when assembling my team, I focus on selecting individuals with the skills that are truly necessary and have the potential to generate value. The goal is to utilise resources efficiently and avoid unnecessary workforce reductions. I’m not claiming to be perfect or immune to making staffing decisions, but this mindset guides my choices and actions.
I aim to leverage technology to enable companies to grow their top line by redirecting their people’s efforts from non-revenue generating tasks to more valuable endeavours. My approach is not about advocating for drastic cuts but rather about optimising resources and empowering teams to focus on activities that drive revenue and create value.
The Perfect Partnership: Uniting Insurance Expertise with Tech Brilliance
Nigel: Really add that those folks are spending time on truly value-added projects and work that increase revenue or positively impact the business. What you just said was interesting, which was thinking about people and who’s going to be additive, and I know you got a co-founder, David, so I’m always interested to hear about the co-founder’s story and how you find each other. Was it a speed dating experience or a long-history experience? I’m interested in what it’s like, but A) working with the co-founder and B) how you found each other.
Tetiana: In the realm of technology and insurance, it was clear that I represented the insurance expertise while David brought the technology aspect to the table. We have a straightforward equation where our skill sets perfectly complement each other.
When I envisioned Curium, I quickly recognised the need for a co-founder. I approached the search for a co-founder as a project, applying my consulting background. I meticulously went through twelve potential candidates, clearly defining what I was looking for and inspiring them with the vision of revolutionising an industry that may not be considered “sexy” for technology professionals. At last, I found David through the Antler network, which you might be familiar with.
David had always excelled in his work but had previously worked for others and implemented their ideas. He was ready for the challenge of building something scalable of his own, a creation that would belong to him.
When I presented him with the problem we aimed to solve, there was a period of adjustment and idea development that lasted about two to three months. As I explained the inefficiencies of the claims process and how insurers operated, I could see David’s frustration growing. He couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, something could be as inefficient as what I was describing. He had previously worked on cutting-edge technologies like blockchain NFDS and was accustomed to instant everything.
I genuinely admire his patience and perseverance in understanding the complexities of the insurance industry while simultaneously creating a sophisticated technology infrastructure with a simple and intuitive user interface. It is one of his most significant creations in that sense.
Nigel: That’s incredible. I’ve heard positive feedback about the Antler experience. Great companies are emerging from that program. For those who may need to become more familiar with it, Antler is a program that brings together individuals with corporate backgrounds and a diverse range of experiences who are looking to transition into the startup world and find co-founders.
It aligns perfectly with the situation you described, where a technical person is seeking a problem to solve and a domain expert is seeking support. It’s a fantastic program.
Tetiana: Actually, we didn’t participate in the Antler program. I didn’t go through it, but my co-founder did. I found him because he needed to find the right person through the program.
Nigel: That’s perfect.
Tetiana: However, by participating in the program, he signalled his interest and intention to be part of the startup world, and that’s how I discovered him.
Empowering the 95%: Revolutionizing Insurance Solutions for Small and Medium-Sized Providers
Nigel: That’s impressive. Tetiana, I appreciate your thoughtful approach to Curium’s purpose. Purpose-driven organisations significantly impact inspiring people, attracting the right talent, and addressing significant problems. How would you describe Curium’s purpose and what you aim to achieve?
Tetiana: Let me provide some context first. While many people associate insurance with the big names in the industry that invest heavily in marketing, the backbone of the insurance sector consists of small and medium-sized companies. Even the well-known big names often rely on others to perform the work. As an MGA (Managing General Agent), Curium operates as a small or medium-sized business within the larger insurance industry.
In Australia, where the insurance market is valued at around $100 billion, even having $100 million still puts you in the small category. This realisation motivated me to level the playing field.
When you look at the big companies, they tend to complicate things unnecessarily. I’ve been involved in numerous committees and implementation projects for multimillion-dollar software systems, some of which have taken years to complete. The most extreme case was a core system implementation that cost between €600 million and €900 million.
While these projects are happening, about 95% of other companies have no viable options. They can’t afford expensive solutions, so they rely on makeshift setups using spreadsheets, email, or trying to adapt generic CRM or support systems to their needs. Eventually, they realise they have significant regulatory risks, inefficiencies, and a lack of visibility into their operations. This disparity exists, and I couldn’t find anyone serving the 95% of insurance service providers who face these challenges. My goal is to professionalise and empower them, giving them the ability to compete on an equal footing with more prominent players at a fraction of the cost.
Exploring Uncharted Territories and Embracing Risk
Nigel: That’s fantastic. So, is it your passion that drives you? You’ve mentioned your background, upbringing, and country of birth, which can contribute to your passion for the industry. Many people in the insurance industry have experiences that fuel their passion. Is that the case for you, or is something different driving your passion?
Tetiana: It’s a combination of factors. Passion is a driving force for me. I want small and medium-sized businesses to thrive and not perish due to financial constraints. However, I have a love-hate relationship with entrepreneurship as a business owner. What truly drives me is the excitement of creating something new and exploring uncharted territories.
Each day, I ask myself, “What wild thing can I do today to test an idea or push the boundaries?” It’s true that in most cases, around 95% of ventures fail, but the 5% that succeed provide incredible experiences that make it all worthwhile. You try something, and it unexpectedly solves a problem in a way you never even imagined. That’s when you realise, “Wow, that’s great! Let’s dig deeper.” I have a curious nature, and I enjoy taking risks. I’m not afraid to expose myself to criticism.
Navigating Challenges as a Female Insurance Entrepreneur, Mother, and Industry Expert
Nigel: It’s truly inspiring, and I’m sure many women in the insurance industry will find your journey and accomplishments inspiring. Being a female in a male-dominated industry, a mother, and a startup founder presents its challenges, but it also sets you apart as an inspirational figure. I’m interested in hearing about the difficulties you face. How do you manage to be a female in the insurance industry, a mother, and a startup founder? Please share your experience.
Tetiana: First of all, my daughter just turned five months old, and I haven’t slept well in five months. It’s undeniably stressful because I have to juggle multiple responsibilities. The best advice I received before my son, who is now three, was born, unfortunately, was to invest money in getting external help. As a founder, finances are tight, but I heavily rely on support. This time, my husband took paternity leave and took on the primary caregiver role for our newborn.
You can never do it all alone. It’s undoubtedly stressful, but in my worldview, shaped by my family history and upbringing in the post-Soviet Union, being a woman was never a hindrance or a factor that limited my ambitions. I believe in equal opportunities and pursuing whatever you want, whether a woman or a man. That’s my ongoing attitude. However, the environment doesn’t always treat me fairly.
I’ve encountered two significant challenges. Firstly, while people recognise my expertise in insurance, there is often doubt about my understanding of technology. Perhaps it’s because I’m female or didn’t study computer engineering. It’s hard to say for sure. That’s one area where I face obstacles.
Secondly, fundraising has been surprisingly challenging. The comments and questions I’ve received have left me amazed. For example, during a pitch at a conference when I was nine months pregnant, one of the questions raised indirectly suggested that I may not be credible or serious as an entrepreneur because I tend to laugh when nervous; this was about dealing with senior stakeholders. I was like, “Whoa, whoa!” My first project at BCG was with a CEO of an Allianz subsidiary in a country when I was 20-something. I couldn’t help but think, “Would anyone have raised this concern if I were a man?”
Individual Actions for Equality and Inclusion in the Insurance Industry
Nigel: You’re right. Subconscious biases are prevalent, both in Australia and globally. While there is a rise in venture-backed initiatives and venture-specific VCs, it’s still a nascent movement, and stories like yours are all too familiar. The biases manifest in different ways, such as labelling assertiveness in women as “bossy” while considering the same traits as leadership in men. These unconscious biases are disheartening. Is there anything we can do as an industry to bring about change? Are there individual actions that can make an impact?
Tetiana: You hold immense power to make a difference as an individual. For instance, when hiring freelancers for specific projects, I consciously push myself to avoid gravitating towards top-rated individuals who charge exorbitant fees. Instead, I consider giving someone else a chance. I review the list of applicants and think, “Maybe this person would appreciate and benefit from my trust and opportunity.” I take into account their background, including their country and socioeconomic factors, because, at the end of the day, it’s my business, and I’m accountable for its outcomes. But I firmly believe that attitude matters more than talent in the long run. By giving someone a chance, I could positively impact their life.
I must admit that not all of my experiments have been successful, but that doesn’t discourage me. Whenever I have an opportunity, I think about giving someone a chance. The same philosophy extends to startups in our ecosystem, both locally and internationally. I provide favourable deals and services without fees because I believe in giving people that little push. When they succeed, we all grow together.
The Evolution of InsurTech: Lessons Learned and the Path to Collaboration
Nigel: It’s impressive how proactive and deliberate you are in your decision-making. Your work in InsurTech is genuinely transforming the industry. Looking back at the past five to ten years and the rise of InsurTech, there have been both successes and failures and now we’re seeing a second wave of growth in different areas. Drawing from your experience at BCG and observing insurers, what changes have you noticed in the insurance sector due to this rise of InsurTech?
Tetiana: Recently, I was on a podcast where the host highlighted a phrase of mine that said, “InsurTechs are dead.” From what I’ve witnessed during this journey, many individuals from non-insurance backgrounds recognised the untapped potential within the insurance industry. They aimed to level the playing field and bring the exact instant expectations seen in industries like e-commerce. However, there have been numerous failures because these individuals often lacked a fundamental understanding of the risky nature of the insurance business.
This led to bloated valuations that plummeted, even falling below the IPO values of large American InsurTech companies. There has also been criticism about the term “InsurTech” being misused, with every new underwriting agency claiming to be an InsurTech simply because they use tools like Outlook. It’s not truly insurance if it’s just the absence of paperwork. There is controversy surrounding this issue.
However, I have hope for the future, particularly in Australia. The industry is moving towards higher professional standards. Individuals who start or run insurance-related ventures possess data, geospatial imaging, and machine learning expertise that contribute to the broader ecosystem. They genuinely understand what they’re doing.
On the other hand, traditional insurance experts are catching up and recognising the importance of embracing new technology and innovation. Insurance professionals must understand the basics and bridge the gap between traditional and tech-driven approaches. Ultimately, the future lies in greater professionalisation and collaboration between the two worlds.
The Challenge of Technology Adoption in Traditional Insurers
Nigel: I hope the insurance industry moves towards greater professionalisation, where traditional insurance professionals catch up with new technology and innovation. They must understand the basics and recognise the importance of embracing change. Traditional insurers have been around for a long time and have solid businesses with significant premiums. How have you observed their response to the rise of InsurTech, and how do you see them adapting in the future?
Tetiana: Interestingly, despite the insurance industry’s core purpose of managing risks, many companies within the industry are risk-averse when making decisions related to technology and new advancements. While this only applies to some, my experience working with large insurers over the years has shown that they are often slow, ignorant, or unsupportive when embracing technology and innovation.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen many instances where they adopt something not because of the innovation’s value but because someone well-connected and persuasive sold it to them. It’s more about external influence than genuine innovative thinking.
However, I must acknowledge that many traditional insurers are becoming more savvy in their approach. For example, Exa Worldwide is an excellent example of an insurer running a venture arm and actively pursuing innovation. Globally, there are signs of engagement and catching up, as revealed by a recent Zurich survey.
Nevertheless, many insurers still have a prevalent “wait and see” attitude. They prefer to observe and determine which innovations and companies will survive before fully embracing them. I often encounter scepticism in my business because we are not listed on the New York Stock Exchange, which raises doubts about our long-term viability. However, I try to emphasise that by working with me, their collaboration contributes to our mutual success. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that creates an exciting dynamic.
The main challenges traditional insurers face are their inherent risk aversion and sometimes misguided technology investments. For instance, implementing Agile as a working methodology, not just as a technology, has led to negative experiences for many companies. Despite these challenges, I believe some individuals within these companies have had to endure the consequences and are candid about their dissatisfaction, even though it may not be openly acknowledged.
Nigel: Absolutely, Agile became popular among young companies, but it was later adopted by consulting firms and pushed onto C-suite executives who made decisions to implement Agile without fully understanding its core principles or having the necessary mindset within their organisations to embrace it. They wanted the benefits of Agile without fully committing to the iterative and potentially risky nature of the approach.
It’s interesting to see how some companies attempted to adopt Agile but eventually returned to a waterfall or hybrid approach. It would be intriguing to conduct a cross-sectional study to determine which corporations have shifted back to Waterfall or similar methodologies after investing billions of dollars in execution.
Tetiana: Yes, and one consequence of unsuccessful Agile implementations is high attrition rates among staff.
Curium’s Vision for Seamless Automation and Exceptional Service
Nigel: It’s fascinating to explore the future, both for the insurance industry and for Curium. Before delving into the future of insurers, I’d like to understand your vision for Curium. Looking ahead to 2030 or even 2050, where would you like the company to be, and what impact would you like it to have?
Tetiana: When I started Curium, I had a clear vision. I often mention “instant everything”; it’s not just a catchy phrase. I genuinely believe in creating an experience that embodies this concept. However, achieving such an experience is incredibly challenging. It requires countless building blocks and mechanisms to seamlessly work together, both for insurers’ customers and those delivering services on behalf of insurers.
As for Curium’s specific role within the value chain, I’m still exploring various areas. Currently, we’re involved in claims, payments, compliance, and other aspects. I receive inquiries about policy administration and even ECG, and if there’s a compelling opportunity, I’m open to considering it as a good entrepreneur. While I may not have a precise vision of where Curium will fit, my vision revolves around excellence in automation, providing exceptional service, ensuring accuracy, and minimising information loss or erroneous behaviours.
I aim to establish a reliable and stable foundation for businesses to operate and for individuals to confidently perform their jobs with the data and information at their disposal; this involves making informed decisions, acting upon system-generated notifications, and meeting the high expectations of today’s digital landscape. Although achieving this vision will take time, it is more than merely a future aspiration. The expectation for such capabilities exists now, and we must strive to deliver on it, recognising that we need to catch up in meeting these expectations.
The Future of Insurers: Instant Payments, Tech Talent, and Climate Responsibility
Nigel: That’s an insightful perspective. So, in your view, what will the future insurer look like?
Tetiana: The future insurer will experience several waves of transformation, similar to other industries. In the near term, a critical focus for insurers will be payments. The expectation is for instant, reliable, and accurate payment processes without issues like bouncebacks; this is a pressing need that insurers must address due to external pressures.
Another significant aspect is the increasing scarcity and cost of talent in the technology space. With technology being pervasive across industries, finding and attracting top tech talent has become more challenging and expensive.
Traditional outsourcing arrangements to lower-cost countries will no longer be sufficient, as the demand for talent is high everywhere. Insurers, who historically may have yet to be seen as attractive employers for innovative tech talent, now offer Silicon Valley-level salaries to secure mid-level developers, UI/UX designers, and others. As a result, a significant shift is expected, where insurers will move towards buying technology solutions rather than building everything in-house.
This shift involves subscribing to technology services, reducing capital expenditure, and opting for operational spending. It’s a move towards a more agile and iterative approach, similar to the model employed by Netflix.
Lastly, the climate debate will take centre stage for everyone, including insurers. They cannot escape it, considering their purpose and operations. While insurers may present themselves as financial service providers with regulatory oversight, they have extensive physical supply chains involved in providing services. Insurers are uniquely positioned to drive the climate debate, both in terms of their purpose and operational activities. Insurers must inevitably address this issue as they operate across the entire industry stack.
Nigel: You’re absolutely right. The entire stack approach is crucial from top to bottom. This conversation has been incredibly intriguing, and I am grateful for your authenticity, honesty, and insightful perspective. It has been an absolute delight. I’m certain that everyone listening has thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I wish you the best of luck with everything, and please know that I’ll be cheering for Curium from the sidelines. Let’s stay in touch, and I hope you have a wonderful afternoon.
Tetiana: Thank you, Nigel. It has indeed been a pleasure.
Nigel: I hope you enjoyed that episode as much as I did. If you want to watch the video, go to the description, where you’ll find the links that will take you directly to our YouTube channel. And if you’re interested in hearing more from industry leaders pushing the boundaries in the insurance industry, check out our podcast series, “Building Tomorrow’s Insurer.” Additionally, you can follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter for more valuable content.
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