Women in Insurance: Q&A with Sabine VanderLinden, CEO & Managing Partner, Alchemy Crew

Women in Insurance - October 6 2021

In this interview series, we profile women who are shaping the future of insurance. This week, we speak with Sabine VanderLinden, CEO and Managing Partner at Alchemy Crew, an award-winning venture validation and commercialization lab focused on accelerating strategic engagements among corporations and startups, particularly tech ventures interested in entering the insurance sector. Before co-founding Alchemy Crew, Sabine served the insurance sector for over 23 years, working with established market players. She launched and delivered her well-known InsurTech startup accelerator in Europe and InsurTech Hub on the East coast of the USA. Her interests include leadership, growth ventures, business model design, and speeding revenue-generating partnerships via ecosystem development. We sat down with Sabine to ask a few questions about her path to insurance, and how more women in insurance leadership, insurtech, and remote work are changing the insurance industry for the better.

Sabine, tell us about your path to insurance and insurtech. What attracted you to the insurance industry?

I came to London (United Kingdom) from Paris (France) through the now-defunct Erasmus program.

In 1996 I started my career within Lloyd's of London market after completing a double degree in business and finance, including insurance which enabled me to acquire five qualifications from the Chartered Insurance Institute. In 1998, I moved to the Lloyd Corporation as a regulatory officer. After three years in Lloyd's market, I decided to depart to gain an MBA from Bayes Business School (formerly CASS) to further my expertise in strategy, international trade, and finance.

After a series of strategy, transformation, and commercial roles, I worked with a private equity-owned firm and a few years later for private investors, which gave me a view on their decision-making process. In 2016, I scaled the Startupbootcamp InsurTech program across Europe and Hartford before turning my attention to new passions within the emerging tech and insurance spheres.

What attracted me to insurance is the relationship-led and no-nonsense culture that many market participants apply when doing business. The sector’s risk aversion can be constraining and gives its members some humility and kindness towards one another. It is also a sector that pushes itself to think differently about the customer and its services. Insurtechs’ continuous nudges for reinvention also enable the industry to reshape its products and services to provide mobile-first user experiences that matter.

Current digitization trends have made emerging technology players even more relevant than ever in the past. With over $45 billion of investment, of which $9 billion were invested during the first six months of 2021, it is the right time to strengthen the current engagement model between insurtechs and insurers.

You’re a pioneer in building innovation ecosystems and partnerships between insurers and insurtechs. What does a successful insurer/insurtech partnership model look like today?

Successful partnerships require complete alignment of values, beliefs, strategic direction, and purpose.

“The best partnerships are those where both parties are truly committed to one another by utilizing each of the parties' complementary strengths to boost the other's strategic and operational goals.”

Accelerating the assessment of relevant ecosystem partners is directly linked to business outcomes and well-scoped value drivers. The latter goes beyond “matchmaking” and requires a clear understanding of insurers’ priorities to unveil unique areas for significant revenue opportunities and cost savings.

While the earliest stages of ecosystem development require an understanding of effective matchmaking, one needs to move beyond this narrow scope to concentrate on co-creative experiments able to unearth commercial initiatives for engaged collaborators.

Successful partnership models must start by scanning and curating complex and sizeable priorities and identifying gaps that startups and growth ventures can alleviate. Leading market players have already recognized the importance of such collaboration. Strategic partnerships are often the fastest course of action to solve short-term problems. Still, new commercial models are emerging to drive unique business value for all parties involved in the process.

Insurance can be a world unto itself. You’ve urged insurers to look outside and see the linkages between insurance and other sectors. What can insurance companies learn from other industries when it comes to innovation and doing things differently?

It is fascinating to me to see what is happening in the automotive, construction, energy, retail, and travel sectors, to name but a few. All these sectors are going through a significant digital transformation, and these changes depend on insurance's ability to manage complex risks. We recently reviewed and evaluated a vital shift affecting us all called the transition economy and the underlying transition risks that will result from changing economic parameters and business models. Today, the corporate insurer has an opportunity to 1) identify and assess the emerging risks entering the marketplace and 2) to design and commercialize products and services that matter for both retail and commercial insurance customers.

For the past five years, advanced technologies have been a game-changer in the insurance industry, and it's continuously getting better within big data, AI, and cloud computing. Just think about what you used to do before your smartphone could give you driving directions or recommend one of the best Italian restaurants within your neighborhood based on what you like. Now, imagine how much more intuitive and effective your day would be if this technology was integrated into your life in highly personalized ways, whether your vehicle, home, or healthcare plan. That is precisely what Insurtech is – harnessing the power of emerging technologies to provide seamless customer experiences across industries that have traditionally relied heavily on human interactions for their services. Today, the advancement in technology forces investors and the insurance industry to identify the winning digital and profit formulas of the future faster than ever.

Insurance carriers and brokers collect mountains of data, but they still struggle to gain the insights needed to assess accurately and price complex risks. If you had to give the industry a report card, how well do insurers manage risk today?

I am not sure it is my place to evaluate whether insurers are managing risk well or less well today as I would think that annual reports are there to provide such insight. I would say, though, that innovation in risk management is continuing to evolve at a fast pace. For instance, I recently wrote a report on the transition economy where I covered a few points on geoengineering. Working closely with Bayes Business School, we also saw that while climate change modeling is pretty sophisticated, environmental modeling still remains less advanced and domain for great innovation.

I believe that insurers have data but not always a clear lens on what to do with that data. Today external data sources must be added to internal data assets to yield compelling predictions. They must be combined with the right stack of sophisticated technology too to drive differentiation. As the world moves faster than ever, scenario planning becomes a crucial part of decision making. Some firms within the global insurance industry struggle to predict emerging risks, which is a significant issue as we move from an era of more controllable risk management activities to one where there are more natural disasters and environmental risks that bring with them new types of hazards.

What positive changes have you seen since you began your career?

There are many positive changes that I have seen emerge over the past 23 years. I shall only consider three.

1. We have seen more women become CEOs of insurance firms and founders of insurtech ventures

When I started my career in insurance, very few women were in the sector. And a lot of positive change has occurred since. For instance, the wearing of the trouser for women was only allowed at Lloyds in the 90s. Today, changes in the dress code to enter the room touch not only women but men too. It is encouraging to see many more women entrepreneurs shifting from traditional insurance roles and entering the tech sector through transformative digitization concepts. It is also satisfying to see the increased interest in the diversity of thought required to serve multi-faceted customer groups, including millennials, Gen Z, and underserved market segments.

2. Insurtechs

As we all know, Insurtech started to become a new recognizable “sector” in 2015 with billions of investment poured into these emerging ventures from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, Softbank Group, and Thrive Capital. We have seen the insurance market players accept that digitization trends are here to stay throughout the crisis due to apparent customer engagement failings and more Insurtechs gaining the unicorn status and IPOs accelerating in recent months. Insurtechs are attracting unique groups of talented industry veterans and millennials within their ranks – individuals who are laser-focused on growth, with the intellectual inclination to look at things differently, the need for transparent progression, and the desire for fun often lacking in controlled environments.

3. Remote working

I remember when I reduced my “in office” workdays from 5 days to 2 days a week due to my needing to dedicate more time to strategic thinking. I also remember those years when I spent significant time on planes too. However, things have changed. Many companies that were resistant to letting employees work from home have had to change tack. Remote working allows for a more balanced quality of life, and many insurance firms now recognize that some employees are highly productive working in a home setting. Remote working also requires adaptive company cultures and leadership styles. Leaders must communicate continuously, stay strong and calm, think long-term, demonstrate empathy, and take appropriate decisive actions when needed. Remote working also emphasizes that isolation is a primary factor in anxiety and depression, and other significant mental health issues. This means that we will need to remember to re-integrate physical and social engagement where needed. 

What advice would you give the next generation of women considering a career in insurance or insurtech?

Insurance and Insurtech are exceptionally fascinating established and new sectors for any talent wanting to solve unique problems in highly customer-centric ways. Insurance identifies, evaluates, and mitigates risks for most industries. The latter means that the innovation potential is one of the highest out there. As I teach Insurtech Disruption on the executive MBA course at Bayes Business School, I often share with the geniuses attending the class that insurance touches everything, making it one of the most intellectually stimulating sectors. For instance, insurance seeks to reinvent itself by evaluating friction in processes, embedding emerging technology, and applying digitization in new ways. It is looking at determining emerging risks to design more effective products and services while unveiling competitive business models. It is also a sector that needs entrepreneurs with deep expertise to scale their ideas.

The next generation of insurance talent should evaluate their career aspirations wisely and recognize that they will experience setbacks. They should determine their emotional intelligence, too, in a world where work will become far more digital and where, as noted above, effective communication becomes even more critical.

So, my advice to the ladies wanting to come into Insurance or Insurtech is as follows. Identify an initiative that interests you most and assess changes in operating and business model innovation. For your talent to be exploited, you will need to think beyond the boundary of our sector and bring insight from other sectors to decode some of the most complex challenges brought about by humanity.


Sabine VanderLinden is the CEO and Managing Partner of Alchemy Crew, a venture lab using open innovation, parallel experimentation techniques, and ecosystem thinking to accelerate the curation, validation, and commercialization of digital platforms and services. Sabine has 25 years of experience in insurance. She was one of the co-founders and CEO of Startupbootcamp InsurTech in the UK & Hartford's InsurTech Hub Accelerator in Hartford, CT, the USA. She worked with over 30 global corporate insurers and accelerated 70+ startups, for which she supported early-stage fundraising.

Sabine is one of the co-editors of bestseller The INSURTECH Book, an insurtech thought leader, investor & multi-award winner. She is a special advisor for Mandalore Partners, Sheffield Haworth, and Redsand Ventures and sits on a few boards. She teaches disruptive innovation and business model disruption at Bayes Business School in London.

Follow Sabine on Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare, YouTube.

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