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Something's changed at life insurer Principal, according to chief data officer Tej Dhawan: "We're not in the insurance business anymore, we're in the tech business."

In remarks at Digital Insurance's Dig | In Analytics and AI conference in Las Vegas last week, Dhawan and colleague Rajesh Chalamalasetti, chief analytics officer, talked about how the carrier has had to digitalize in order to meet the needs of a changing market and world.

"People are living longer, which has a direct correlation to underwriting," Dhawan says. "Tech is impacting what we do beyond that original target [retirement] date of 65. We knew that not only did we need to digitize and digitalize our business, but needed to bring in ideas that were not comfortable."

Principal, based in Des Moines, Iowa, signed on to the Global Insurance Accelerator as a sponsor and mentor company at its launch in the goal of opening a dialogue with insurtech companies. It began embracing using third-party data to take 30% of its book off of requiring medical lab work, leaning on AI and automation to open up more complex cases to underwriters.

"Increased velocity of data is necessitating flash burning the haystack to find the needle," Dhawan said. "Humans have to be helped by systems to go through all the data."

The company also formed the DevelopU initiative, an "internal university" that aimed to take a different tack toward operationalizing digital than slide decks. DevelopU encourages strong believe statements for digital initiatives, encourages the company to tap into its curated data and provides a feedback mechanism straight from the academic world: peer review.

"But we knew that this is not just technology, this is idea acquisition and proliferation throughout our company," Dhawan says. "If we just brought in the products and said 'use them,' we would fail."

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