Electronic Chat with Jonathan Roomer, Co-Founder, YuLife
Laura Mazzuca Toops | January 25, 2021
Jonathan Roomer is co-founder of YuLife, a group life insurance company based in the UK. The YuLife app rewards policyholders for looking after their well-being – if they go for a walk or practice meditation, they earn “yucoin” that can be exchanged for vouchers on Amazon, Apple, ASOS, and more.
He started his career as an entrepreneur and early-stage lead for KPMG’s Tech Growth team, where he consulted over 200 startups. Later, Roomer went into banking, became an actuary, and headed back into the entrepreneurial world to launch YuLife. Roomer is a guest lecturer at Imperial College Business School and a frequent speaker at tech and startup events and conferences.
How did you get started in insurance?
My background is as an actuary, but in working with life insurers, I decided it wasn’t for me. After that I transitioned to a team working with tech startups. I did this for four years and loved it, but it got to the stage where you’re helping other people to live your dreams, not your own. It reminded me of an old New York Times cartoon that showed kids playing, and one asks the other, “What do you want to be when you give up?”
I was doing well, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be. I was fortunate that the CEO and founder of YuLife invited me to come along, and I was lucky to be able to join the company in its early stages. I brought insurance technology knowledge to the new business – I’ve built risk models, but I’m also a geek, so I’ve also built some of the mechanics behind the YuLife app. We’re still in the growth phase, with 60 employees, and we plan to do a Series B fundraise in the not-too-distant future.
Please tell us a little about how YuLife works.
YuLife’s mission is to inspire people to live their best lives every day. Looking at life insurance historically, it’s been primarily about claims compensation. We believe YuLife is a shift away from claims toward risk mitigation.
We’re using technology focusing on creating unique relationships with people through our app, which brings life insurance to life and makes it fun. We gather data on tens of thousands of people, and can now do more through machine learning.
There’s a personal pathway within the YuLife app where users can choose what challenges to pursue. In the past these have been relatively static because it’s a defined pathway, but we’re using AI to make it more personalized. So, for example, if a user is focused on one health area, the app can push them in different directions for balance.
The insurance-heavy use of machine learning is leading to dynamic underwriting, using data to build new risk models, which is where ML comes in, and we use AI for personalization on an individual level.
We launched the company four years ago but only started really getting out there 18 months ago. 2020, has been a big growth year for us; we have grown exponentially, and we’ve developed a solid working relationship with reinsurers around dynamic underwriting.
We’re currently focusing on life and associated group products in the UK, but our customers have locations across the world, so we’re looking to expand in the next year or so.
We’ve had great opportunities to partner with unique players, including Calm, Garmin, and Fitbit; on insurance and financial services side, we’re working closely with online wills, and AIG is our carrier in the UK.
How has the COVID pandemic changed the way you do business?
As an insurtech startup, we’re used to working remotely, so the transition to all remote work went relatively smoothly for use. Most of our partners adapted, but we saw some of the bigger players in the UK stop offering new business completely, even though they had offshored business to India. It’s been fascinating to see some new business divisions cease operations for a month before they could sort it out.
But industries really deserve credit for turning it around. In the past many firms griped about using electronic signatures, etc., but then the compliance laws loosened up and Docusign and others became more accepted.
In general, what IT or other operational weaknesses have been revealed during COVID?
UK insurers realize they need to have stronger relationships with their customers, besides just billing and claims. We need to be able to talk to our customers when things are going wrong. This has come a long way – many insurers are now trying to launch things like what we’re doing around well-being offerings and support services. That’s brilliant for us since that’s our mission. There’s also a big shift toward digital signatures and access to virtual health care and doctors, which is another big change that’s here to stay.
How are insurers conducting strategic and budget planning during the pandemic – and doesn’t all the uncertainty make it next to impossible?
They have to spend a lot more time doing it. Since we’ve been working remotely, the level of communication must be higher and more frequent; you must actually over-communicate and be more agile. In the past, companies have planned forward for 18 months; now it’s for the next six months. We’re shortening the horizon to be more agile.
Many insurers, especially underwriters, are extremely conservative. At the start of COVID, many were looking to exclude coverages or push higher pricing, so at some stage group life providers would not provide coverage to long-term care homes. It’s an understandable change, but it’s also a knee-jerk reaction, and they’re now starting to unwind this.
What’s the state of commercial lines insurance for hard-hit industries like hospitality, travel, airlines, etc.? Do you anticipate them coming back once the virus is at bay?
We have clients across industries, and many are obviously being hit incredibly hard. We are thankful we have had few companies that have had to cancel policies -- life insurance is not a good thing to cancel at this time. But we looked to help them however we could, with alternatives like payment holidays and reduced coverage, if it was absolutely necessary. It’s important for us to provide customers with flexibility, understanding, and an opportunity to recover.
I recently attended a Zoom lecture with a CEO who told us that you have to switch your mindset – you’re no longer selling but supporting. Find out how you can help your customers and they will remember and buy from you later. That’s what we try to do.
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The Email Chat is a regular feature of the ITA Pro magazine and website. We send a series of questions to an insurance IT leader in search of thought-provoking responses on important issues facing the insurance industry.
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