Risks and rewards go hand-in-hand at the Zurich Innovation Championship

For Zesty.ai’s Attila Toth, data is a tool to protect people from disasters. He explains how this works and offers top tips on the ZIC, which he calls a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Attila Toth, co-founder and CEO of Zesty.ai, the silver winner of the first Zurich Innovation Championship, wants to protect people and their homes from risks, such as fires and floods. As the second Zurich Innovation Championship was getting underway, he spoke to us about what it means to enter the competition.

Things that keep people at Zesty.ai busy are the same that preoccupy many insurers and their customers. Climate change has led to hotter, drier weather resulting in dangerous wildfires, while flood risk is increasing. At the Zurich Innovation Championship, Zesty.ai showcased its artificial intelligence-powered solutions to help insurers better analyze such risks. Zurich and Zesty.ai are now working on ways to spot risks to property, from wildfires and floods. Their work can also improve data accuracy, ultimately helping insurers (and their customers) to better price risks.

In the Zurich Innovation Championship that concluded in early 2019, Zesty.ai competed against more than 450 startups from 49 countries around the world. As this year’s Innovation Championship 2020 got underway, Toth talked about how he got involved in the tournament, offered his top tips to this year’s entrants, and explained how he and the gold winner struck up a friendship through the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Zurich Insurance Group (ZIG): Hi Attila, can we start off with you explaining a little about Zesty.ai, please?

Attila Toth (AT): The frequency and severity of wildfires, tornadoes and floods have increased. Developing technology such as cloud computing, very high-resolution satellite imagery and artificial intelligence means we have an opportunity to build new models that can better predict the impact of those catastrophic risk events. Better models mean better understanding, better preparedness and better insurance products for loss events. That’s what Zesty.ai does.

ZIG: How did you find out about the Zurich Innovation Championship?

AT: We were at a conference in 2018, where we happened to meet someone from Zurich, and that discussion alerted us to the competition.

So, we did the online application and then we went to Chicago for the regional round. What struck me is Zurich's commitment. We had leaders from across the U.S. and Canada sitting in one room. It was a very deep conversation with senior leaders in a pretty exciting innovation-focused setting.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you don't forget once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”

ZIG: What do you think was key to being successful in a global tournament like this one?

AT: What gives us an advantage is the very broad applicability of our technology. You can apply the technology not only in the U.S., but globally − and Zurich is a global company. It can be applied in personal and commercial lines businesses − and Zurich serves both. And, you can apply it not only in one peril, for example wildfires, but across multiple catastrophic events.

What really clicked for me is that Zurich seems to care about things that matter to us, like protecting people and a long-term sustainable mindset.

ZIG: Let’s talk about the big announcement day, when you were selected as runners-up. What was that experience like?

AT: It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you don't forget once-in-a-lifetime experiences. There was a countdown for the final three and when there were just two names left, I shook hands with Ron Glozman, the CEO of Chisel AI, because then we knew that we were in the top two. Chisel AI was the gold winner.

It was an amazing feeling when Zurich’s Giovanni Giuliani called out Zesty.ai as the silver winner. It was an acknowledgement that the three years of really hard work that we invested in building this company was starting to pay dividends.

ZIG: You mentioned shaking hands with Ron. Has this process led to new friendships?

AT: Yes. Ron and I talk every month, we compare notes on our respective journeys in insurtech.

“Don't underestimate the impact of what this [tournament] can give to you − credibility, visibility and accelerated business opportunities. Be very conscious about the catapulting effect that this can give you.”

ZIG: Ron told us the tournament really helped his business. Have you found the same?

AT: It has given us a lot of credibility in the marketplace, but, more importantly, it has opened the doors to accelerated pilots with insurers.

The biggest challenge that I face, as an insurtech startup, is that my funding cycle is not aligned with the average technology adoption cycle of a large insurance carrier. The former is 12 to 18 months, the latter is 24 months to as long as three or four years. Given the dissonance, it's very hard to quickly close business in insurtech with large carriers. But this has given me the opportunity to get on an accelerated path with some of Zurich's global companies. So, we have done two pilots. One is completed, the other is still in ongoing.

We got the award at the end of January and in seven to eight months, we have gone through a pilot cycle − that's a record. That, to me, is the biggest gift to come out of this. Also, a Farmers business unit recently completed an evaluation of the Zesty.ai product, and we are hoping that this will develop into a future relationship with Farmers.

ZIG: Finally, what tips would you offer to startups looking to replicate your success at the forthcoming Zurich Innovation Championship?

AT: Don't underestimate the impact of what this can give to you − credibility, visibility and accelerated business opportunities. Be very conscious about the catapulting effect that this can give you..

And don’t just pitch your solution, but ask a lot of questions to the business involved, because the business is going to be standing with you at the finals. You've got to make sure that the solution you're presenting can be turned into a solid business case with that business. So, make the most of the relationship throughout this entire process – the business also wants to win!

And, lastly, ‘think business case’ and be crystal clear on the value to Zurich and the value to Zurich’s customers.

Zurich Innovation Championship

The Zurich Innovation Championship is a global contest for established startups. It seeks startups as contestants who, like Attila at Zesty.ai, have good solutions that match what we at Zurich are doing. Entries should have commercially viable solutions. Our theme this year is ‘Protecting the Next Generation,’ and the solutions definitely should aim to tackle the biggest issues we’re facing today to make a difference to tomorrow’s generations. Entrants may have a new approach that will revolutionize challenges in climate, health or automation in the workforce. Or they might just generally push the boundaries of transformation and enter as a ‘wildcard.’ Up for a challenge? Here’s where to apply!

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