Inside Liberty Mutual's innovation center

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The sharing economy, connected home and autonomous vehicles are top of mind for Liberty Mutual Insurance at its Boston-based innovation center, Solaria Labs.

Opened in 2015. the lab’s purpose is twofold: to identify and tackle disruptive industry trends while changing Liberty Mutual’s mindset around digital transformation. Mounting pressure from customers looking for user experiences resembling that of Amazon and Google also forced the carrier to think differently about core products put into market.

“People’s expectations are so high,” said Adam L’Italien, VP of global consumer markets innovation at Liberty Mutual, when Digital Insurance visited the lab this month. “You’re not compared to your direct competition in many industries now. You’re compared to all competition and all industries.”

Solaria Labs is treated as a part of a larger ecosystem that also includes the insurer’s core business and partner network—startups and original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—with co-creation as the main objective. At any time, the Solaria Labs can partner with any member of the ecosystem, L’Italien says. As an example, the lab tapped into core resources to launch its own startup, All Set, in 2015. All Set connects customers with home cleaning professionals online, similar to how Uber pairs drivers with commuters. The service is currently available in Massachusetts and California.

“We have very deep partnerships with existing organizations that span away from emerging companies,” said L’Italien. “We work with them to test and learn with a goal of co-creating as well.”

Product owners, operating as mini CEOs, are responsible for running all projects at Solaria Labs, according to Chris Moss, the lab’s manager, reporting directly to L’Italien. They’re responsible for testing new products in market and understanding what features need to be built on. Solaria’s applied science team is tasked with developing algorithms needed for the projects. Software developers and designers then build out the functionality for apps and online solutions.

“They’ll come into work thinking about those different work streams and then, of course, have various meetings to understand as a team how to coordinate different projects and figure out how to get them to market as soon as possible,” Moss says.

Liberty Mutual rotates staff from across its global business to work at its Solaria Labs WeWork space in order to spread its new fail fast model—one where it frequently tests hypothesizes in market instead of making too many assumptions, L’Italien says.

In keeping with the approach, Solaria’s data science team, part of its applied science division, looks for new ways to use emerging technologies such as machine learning or blockchain. The accelerator also has a dedicated team scanning for emerging trends, similar to those the insurer identified two years ago.

Earlier this month, Solaria Labs launched its Total Home Score initiative after internally customizing a Shine API using open city data. The platform, available only in Boston, helps illuminate neighborhoods through 3-D maps, rating road safety and noise levels around a home.

Using the same publicly available data, Solaria Labs is also looking to expand the use of its Shine API to drivers by adding a “safe route” to customers’ preferred GPS navigation app. Most only provide the quickest route or an option avoiding tolls. Data points such as time of day and location will be factored into suggestions route suggestions.

“I can imagine the future world where I’m taking my child, putting them in the back seat for the first time,” said L’Italien “I’m going to trade time for a lower probability of risk based on historic data.”

Solaria Labs is also scheduled to roll out a new platform focused on the sharing economy in November, with an eye toward capturing more customer data for insight on how to protect evolving forms of risk. Liberty Mutual already offers discounts to customers who install smart home devices and adopt connected-car technologies from Volvo and Subaru in exchange for information.

“As people maybe own things less and start sharing personal assets in new ways, new risks evolve and new things that people are going to want to protect against will emerge,” L’Italien notes.

Like many insurance companies, Solaria Labs relies heavily on machine learning to build out its applications, as it can be used to process images, text and voice through natural language processing and computer vision. The technology will also be a focal point of Solaria Labs’ new Singapore location established this summer. One of its senior employees is currently in Asia standing it up, L’Italien says.

In March, Liberty Mutual moved its Boston Solaria Labs location near the city’s South Station transit hub closer to its main campus. The lab, encompassing 160 work stations, is now directly adjacent to the insurer’s home offices, a move intended to improve operational workflows and collaboration efforts through proximity.

“You’ll find people that have 10, 15-plus years in the insurance industry working with us,” said L’Italien. “But you also have people that have come from consumer goods or technology organizations, like Chris, chipping away at really hard problems.”

Having an established Solaria Labs Boston location also allows the insurer to grab talent from highly-credited universities, L’Italien adds.

“This guy [Chris] is an MIT guy,” he concluded. “So he definitely was drawn from the talent pool.”

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Customer-centricity Insurtech Digital distribution Machine learning Artificial intelligence Insurance technology Start-up funding Customer experience Liberty Mutual