by Joanne Carew

Build, or team up? Momentum taps start-up expertise for health apps

Feb 03, 2021
Fitness DevicesHealth and Fitness SoftwareInsurance Industry

Insurance companies like South Africa-based Momentum Metropolitan face challenges due to COVID, but also another sort of health crisis: an aging client base with multiple morbidities. In this Q&A Carol Atkinson, a managing partner in the group's venture capital unit, talks about how partnerships are key to innovative technology that solves big business problems.

carol atkinson
Credit: Carol Atkinson

The insurance industry is typically well prepared for major loss events, like hurricanes and floods. But when entire countries were locked down because of the coronavirus, many insurers found they needed to make a sudden digital shift to keep their operations going while everyone was working from home. In addition, insurers face a longer-term challenge: rising global healthcare costs due to problems such as obesity, mental illness and various comorbidities in an aging population.

These growing health problems are a “pandemic” of their own, says Carol Atkinson, managing partner of venture-capital firm Exponential Ventures, part of financial and insurance services company Momentum Metropolitan Holdings Limited (MMH), based in South Africa. In this Q&A, Atkinson discusses the digital transformation insurers need to make in the wake of the pandemic, and how partnerships with start-ups that have specialised expertise can accelerate technology innovation to confront business challenges.

What technology investments will be making the most impact across your organisation in the coming year?

In 2021, I think that there will have to be more fundamental digital transformation taking place that will force people to review and rethink their entire tech infrastructure. And as a knock-on effect of this digital move, I think we’ll see more and more cybercrime. As companies look at new ways of work, it’s probably a good idea for them to consider ‘renting a hacker’ who can come in and test their systems so that they can identify any issues before they become an issue.

How will you be supporting the business with technology in 2021?

When it comes to digital transformation, I think that a real partnership is needed between business and IT. It’s about solving business problems with tech and working together. IT understands the tech part but successful digital transformation also requires strategic thought. Let’s take machine learning, as an example. The IT guys get it. But you need a business problem or a challenge to be able to put the tech to use. You won’t earn any accolades for having a machine-learning solution in place if it isn’t being used to solve real business problems or to address key business requirements.  

What business problems are you currently trying to solve using technology?  

Looking at the insurance industry, I believe that there are a number of challenges we can overcome or opportunities we can tap into using the right tech. One of the issues we’re trying to tackle is something I refer to as the Fat Bob, the Sad Bob and the Old Bob global health issues. The Bobs are their own pandemic – from obesity and cardiovascular disease to mental-health issues to people living longer but with extended lifespans comes a range of complex comorbidities. As insurers, we’re paying out a range of different claims just to address the needs of the Bobs and broad healthcare costs are going to go out of kilter if these demographics continue to grow. When we created Kimi [mobile health tracker app] we wanted to develop tools to better track and screen our clients.

The first phase in our Kimi Tracking journey started off in partnership with a local start-up called LifeQ. Using a wearable device, linked to an app, we can continuously track key health data with an extremely high level of accuracy. We wanted to find out if we could use these data streams to suggest early interventions and interact with our customers with more precision. The wearable gives us an understanding of the client’s heart health by replicating a visit to a nurse. Due to the accuracy of the data streams we have the ability to early intervene with our digital doctor or refer clients to their own doctor if we pick up anything unusual.

How did this journey continue? 

Quite early on, we understood that wearables have certain limitations. So we also wanted to develop an alternative. We partnered with an Israeli start-up called Binah, who use photoplethysmography (PPG) sensors — sensors used to monitor key vitals like heart rate, oxygen saturation levels, stress levels etc  — via a mobile phone. Leveraging their expertise and using the information we’d gained from the wearables, we created the Kimi Screening app. Today, Momentum’s Health and Life clientele are using Kimi to assist with at home monitoring. The response to Kimi has been great so far. 

What were the metrics for success?

I guess client adoption would be the most obvious one. But we were also greatly concerned with data accuracy and making sure that the data streams we were getting were as accurate as possible. That’s why we partnered with companies like LifeQ and Binah, who have the knowhow and expertise around this kind of thing.

What technologies did you decide to use and why?  

We don’t ever develop the science. We partner with other companies and start-ups who have the expertise we need. Everyone we deal with operates within their own cloud. From a Kimi perspective, we use Amazon. It’s easier for us to use off-shelf technology in certain instances and more specialised solutions for other aspects. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all strategy. A big thing for any business, us included, is ability to scale. With anything we create, we need to be thinking about how it’s going to grow and what this growth is going to cost.

You’ve spoken a lot about partnerships. Why is this approach your preference? 

Start-ups solve problems, they are agile and they’re savvy about digital engagement. I think a lot of traditional players don’t understand this. Going forward, I believe that the world will become a much more open ecosystem where we’re happy to work with external parties because we acknowledge that they can deliver greater value. There are so many people out there who do things better than us. We are no longer expected to do everything ourselves. If customers expect to work and deliver like the Amazons of this world, it just makes sense for us to align ourselves with innovative start-ups that can provide us with the solutions we need and we just plug and play. Without strategic partnerships it would’ve taken us a lot longer to do what we did with Kimi. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring IT professionals?

As I said earlier, I think there is real value in an integrated IT and business strategy. IT, on its own, is just IT. Having everyone work towards the same end goal is key. IT and business have to get closer. I also think that if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re able to add value. A couple of years ago, a cleaner at NASA was asked about the work they do and he or she replied that their job is to put people on the moon. For me, IT professionals need to think about their work from a similar perspective, not on a micro level but with more big picture thinking.