Passionate, creative and clever people only?

Sarah Swailes blogs about her secondment working with Plug and Play in San Francisco.

In 2016, Aviva announced its corporate partnership with Plug and Play, a global digital start-up accelerator headquartered in Silicon Valley. This relationship gives Aviva access to world-class digital start-ups and — for the lucky few Aviva people seconded here — the opportunity to mentor them and help to turn their ideas into products or services.

The Plug and Play partnership supports Aviva’s “Digital First” strategy, which aims to make dealing with Aviva simple and convenient, and includes testing and developing new ideas aimed at making insurance and financial services more tailored and accessible to Aviva’s customers.

I am one of a fortunate few Aviva people to be seconded to Plug and Play throughout its InsurTech programme, which runs from April to July. My day-to-day role at Aviva plc is far removed from the work involved on this secondment; back in London I work in the Group Communications team, essentially a conduit between Aviva and the business media.

However some things remain the same; relationship building and business knowledge are both vital here too.

So what are we actually doing — and why?

The set up, at is most simplistic, is that Plug and Play provides an ecosystem* for start-ups and its corporate partners (like Aviva) whom it believes could benefit from partnering with the start-ups or investing in their technology. 
 The Plug and Play team provide support and mentoring to the start-ups and have a team dedicated to insurance corporates specifically (that includes me!).

We all see at first-hand that there are some issues within insurance which need addressing and there are people here who have technology to help us do that. So, it’s our job to identify the start-ups and work with the relevant Aviva businesses to trial technology we think could have a positive impact on the Aviva group.

Time moves quickly
 Since I have been here, we have met with and seen pitches from maybe two hundred start-ups. Of course not all will be relevant to Aviva, but even those that aren’t are still exciting to engage with because they are yet another demonstration of how the world is changing — and the pace at which that’s happening.

It’s being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it is clear — from this vantage point anyway — that we are all in a race to just keep up with it. I have read that the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent; when compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential, rather than a linear, pace.

Time moves very quickly in Silicon Valley, there are simply not enough hours in the day to attend all of the pitches, conferences and networking events but you feel like you have to try or you might just miss out on the ‘next best thing’.

The competition is fierce and it can be tough identifying the most impressive start-ups because everyone wants to tell you that they’re unique, that their technology is ‘like no other’.

The power of networking
 Plug and Play run several cohorts a year, each time with new batches of start-ups for the corporate partners to meet. The culmination of this cohort is the Summer Summit. The Summer Summit is a celebration of the months of work that have taken place in the Plug and Play offices, a final chance for the start-ups to showcase their technology to a huge audience of venture capitalists, corporates and also to the competition.

It is a demonstration of how powerful networking is here and how many great relationships have been built over a coffee, at an event or even because you stopped to pat someone’s dog (that’s always me).

From partnership to pilot
 We are building relationships not just with start-ups we want to work with, but also corporates we think we could partner with. As I write, we are facilitating conversations between start-ups we have identified and business leaders back in the UK.

The next step is setting up pilots — could this software improve the customer experience? Could this technology tell us more about our customers or how successful our most recent advertising campaign was? As a business, it’s crucial that we keep challenging ourselves and don’t avoid asking the difficult questions.
 There are a number of other insurers and banks here, many with permanent presence. The common theme is engagement. Everyone wants to learn from each other. It is a fantastic work environment and one that seems to come far more naturally here.

It is not unusual to be standing in a queue for a coffee one minute and exchanging business cards with the stranger who’s standing behind you in the queue the next.

And everyone has something interesting to say; I’ve come to the conclusion that Silicon Valley is a little like a party where the invite reads ‘passionate, creative and clever people only’.

* In Silicon Valley the expression ‘innovation ecosystem’ is used to describe a community of entrepreneurs, investors and other partners (such as corporates like Aviva) which come together in one environment to collaborate for mutual benefit.

First published on 06/07/17 on Medium.

Sarah Swailes, Senior Manager, Group Media Relations.

On secondment to Plug and Play as Insurtech Lead.

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