John Hancock's Head of Innovation Outlines Issues Holding Back Startups


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May 24, 2023

John Hancock's Head of Innovation Outlines Issues Holding Back Startups

The growth of the

The growth of the financial-technology sector has exploded in recent years as startups look to solve problems for large, slow-moving financial firms in innovative ways. But one executive at a nearly $500 billion insurance firm said both sides could be working more efficiently with each other.

Steve Dorval, head of innovation and advice at John Hancock, told Business Insider in an interview Thursday that there are several issues startups face when trying to solve problems for big banks and insurance companies.

Dorval, who is also the president of John Hancock's personal financial services, said entrepreneurs don't always see the benefits their products might offer large, complex financial firms because they lack a full understanding of the problems these companies face.

"There are a lot of companies and startups out there that don't realize that they have solutions that could feed the needs of what we want in terms of how to help make us more efficient," Dorval said. "You're a 25-year-old PhD coming out of MIT, and you haven't worked in a large financial-services-industry [firm]. You might have no idea that XYZ is hard when it seems like it should be just routine for someone like us."

Startups have done a good job of addressing issues that are visible to the general public. Dorval pointed to reduced trading fees and renters insurance as examples of fintechs developing technology to do something in the industry cheaper and more efficiently. It's a common origin story in the space, he added, of an entrepreneur looking to address an issue they personally faced.

However, financial firms face other challenges not seen by outsiders that young startups might not even understand.

"There are still large financial-services organizations that are dealing with faxes," he said. "There are probably entrepreneurs that have never seen a fax machine. How do you know to solve a problem for an issue that you didn't even realize existed in the world anymore?"

Financial firms carry some of the blame as well, Dorval said, as they could do a better job of interacting with startups early on. The structure of large organizations requires fintechs to jump through multiple hoops just to allow the firm to test their solution.

As a result, Dorval said some of the most sought-after fintechs are hesitant to get involved with legacy financial or tech firms.

"We have heard horror stories with startups where they spend six to nine months working with a large company trying to just implement a proof of concept," Dorval said. "Many entrepreneurs, especially the ones with the most exciting technology, are suspicious of partnering with large companies like us."

As a result, Dorval said John Hancock has tried to dramatically reduce the friction costs for startups to begin doing business with them, whether it be through a proof of concept or even a validation of an idea.

John Hancock and Dorval will get that opportunity through their involvement in the MassChallenge accelerator program, in which financial firms in the Boston area have the opportunity to work with local fintechs. John Hancock, which has about $483 billion in assets under management, has invested an undisclosed amount to be involved in the program for the next three years, Dorval said.

The insurance company could end up working with as many as 10 startups through the accelerator, he added.

"We try to think about it more as being almost like a venture-capital portfolio that you are probably going to have a not normal distribution of outcomes," Dorval said. "There are going to be a lot of different things we try or a lot of companies that we talk to and see if we can do something. Many of them will either not work or won't be real, and we will realize that, hopefully fast. But if one or two of them can meaningfully change the cost curve or improve our customer experience, then we will have considered this entire relationship to be a rousing success."

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