In mid-April, for the final time, Brian Hemesath took the stage at the Des Moines, Iowa, Global Insurance Symposium to kick off the showcase event for the insurtech accelerator he had stewarded for the past five years. The Global Insurance Accelerator had started with just a folding chair and a card table in a dusty office, with companies that didn’t even have logos prepared, had blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon. In the first year, seven insurance companies sponsored the program for six startups; by 2019, those numbers had increased to 13 and ten, respectively. More resources, upgraded facilities, and notable investments and successes have trickled out of the group over its half-decade.
Hemesath decided to step down to ensure that the accelerator never suffered from legacy thinking. That’s how startup culture works, he noted: It’s important to be able to move on to the next thing. “Innovation means embracing risk,” he said. Lastly, Hemesath thanked the regional insurers and municipal authorities for their support. “Des Moines and the midwest are literally on the map now” for innovation, thanks to the insurance industry’s digital transformation, he said. “We’ve leveraged our own natural resource — insurance professionals — to build this reputation.”
A new set of eyes in the personage of Nicole Cook stood ready to take over. Like Hemesath, Cook had left her home state of Iowa to pursue a career in financial technology, starting with the Des Moines-based payments startup Dwolla and eventually moving on to a couple other projects, including time Both she and Hemesath
“I had been a part of a startup that was Des Moines-based, but it was one of the few,” Cook said in an interview, noting that historically, the pressure was on innovators from the region to move out of the area. “Now, startups are saying, ‘I don’t need to leave this ecosystem.’ The support system exists and things like the GIA have started to bring investors to the area.”
The Global Insurance Accelerator is one of the primary examples of how insurtech has carved out a niche to help regional technology growth and innovation in some areas. More than 80 companies that sell insurance in some form — ranging from locally grown notables like The Principal, to major regional offices for companies like MetLife and Nationwide — have a presence in Des Moines, according to the Greater Des Moines partnership. Once the fintech movement moved into insurance, locals who had tried to support more industry-agnostic tech development programs realized that “being more focused and leveraging the insurance industry that was here makes sense,” Cook says.
Now, Des Moines and the state of Iowa have a blueprint for leveraging existing regional strengths into a tech cluster. An agritech accelerator recently launched in the area, with some crossover with insurance but also complementary characteristics. And it isn’t the only city where this is happening.